Does spying have international rules? On the face of it, the question is absurd. How can one regulate an activity that is defined by law-breaking and subterfuge, and whose existence must accordingly be disclaimed? And yet, espionage is not wholly disordered.
Does ‘intelligence’ have rules?
Silent understandings emerge between rival agencies, indicating what lies beyond the pale. Spying does not have laws, but it may have rules—or at least expectations and norms. These are fluid, because secrecy precludes enforcement. The rules bend according to the circumstances of politics and technology. And today they are bending more than ever.
Instances which define the rules of spying –
- The first example comes from the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK last week. While it is possible that Skripal did something to forfeit his protected status, it may simply be that President Vladimir Putin decided to send a message. But it comes at a cost, with a norm shattered and the credibility of future swaps in tatters. The value of such espionage etiquette is best understood by observing what happens in its absence. As per B Raman (Author of ‘The Kaoboys of RAW’), Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence employed electric shocks against detained R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing) officers, while India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), had a similarly “brutal manner”. This behaviour closes down the door of prisoner-swap or spy-swap.
- A second question is whether certain sorts of spying are more acceptable than others and, if so, whether this line is now blurring. When China pulled off a spectacular cyber-heist of data from the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 2014, the CIA remarked that if he had the opportunity to grab equivalent Chinese data, he “would not have thought twice”. This was “honourable espionage work”. However, Beijing’s efforts to steal valuable commercial secrets from private American companies were viewed as an affront to the unspoken rules. In both cases, Chinese espionage involved breaking American laws and hurting American interests; why should one be praised, and the other damned? Clearly, America wants to make commercial espionage taboo because it has more technology to lose, whereas in political espionage, it gives as good as it gets.
- Third, we may be witnessing a blurring of the defensive and offensive aspects of espionage. Spying is neutral; it can be for any purpose, from reassurance to revolution. But technology adds to the opportunities, and to the confusion. If an adversary has placed implants on your nuclear command and control networks, are they there to receive forewarning of an attack, or to enable sabotage of your deterrent? Offensive or defensive intentions can never be known fully. Cyber-defence requires cyber-attack.
Role of technology –
The covert dissemination of information to sway foreign politics is not in itself new. As Paul McGarr has shown, the UK’s information research department, which worked to counter Soviet propaganda, secretly placed material in over 500 Indian newspapers in 1964 alone. But this looks like child’s play alongside Russia’s Internet Research Agency, whose industrial-scale operations on Facebook and Twitter wrenched open American social cleavages. We have only seen the beginning of these complex campaigns, which fuse human intelligence, cyber-espionage and political warfare.
Controlling intelligence is not like arms control. It is messy and fluid. The rules and norms of intelligence are—perhaps always—being renegotiated, rewritten, and bent.