Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

Political Science


English (en)

Date of Award

Spring 4-29-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Andrew Rehfeld


My dissertation attends to the urgent ethical problems raised by government spying. It asks and answers three principal questions: What is spying? What principles should regulate government spying? And how can government agents be constrained to follow these principles?

The first chapter takes up the conceptual question. I defend the following definition of spying: agent A spies on agent B, if and only if she collects information that relates to B and intends to conceal her information collection from B. The main challenge any conception of spying faces is to cover a relatively wide range of agents often thought to be spies - e.g. defectors, moles, and informants - without including agents not often thought of as spies. This challenge is best met, I argue, by drawing on the concept of collective intentionality. Aldrich Ames, for example, although he did not intend to conceal his information collection from the U.S. government, nevertheless spied on the U.S. government, since he participated in a collectivity, which included his handlers at the KGB, that met both of the conditions stipulated in my definition.

Chapters three through six examine the ethics of domestic government spying, i.e. governments spying on their own citizens within their own territories. I make two main arguments. The first is that domestic government spying should be regulated by five principles: just cause, proportionality, necessity, minimization, and discrimination. The second argument is that the law-enforcement and intelligence officials who employ these principles should not alone determine how they apply in particular cases - the principles should be institutionalized.

In chapter three I demonstrate that the five principles are supported by widespread intuitions about government spying in liberal democracies. In chapters four through six, I show that the same principles are supported by the moral theory that I think is most plausible: two-level utilitarianism. Since utilitarianism is often thought to strongly conflict with people's ordinary moral intuitions, if I am correct and the same principles can be derived both from widespread intuitions and utilitarianism, then the principles are on strong ground.

In chapter seven, I shift my focus from domestic government spying to foreign spying. I focus on two kinds of foreign spying in particular: government spying on foreign individuals and government spying on foreign states. I argue that government spying on foreign individuals and on foreign states should be institutionalized and that both should follow principles similar but not identical to those that governments should follow in the domestic context.

In the final two chapters I turn to the institutional question. In chapter eight I examine the two primary American institutions employed to control intelligence agencies: legislative oversight and judicial review. Both I argue employ biased principals and suffer from informational asymmetries. In chapter nine I step back from American institutions and characterize the universe of possible mechanisms to constrain intelligence agencies. Drawing on some of the more promising of these mechanisms, I propose a set of reforms for American institutions. At the heart of my proposal is an elected panel that reviews day-to-day requests to spy and performs longer-term strategic oversight. In order to allay the panel's informational disadvantages compared to intelligence agencies I recommend, among other things, including a devil's advocate in the panel's review procedures and equipping the panel with a small intelligence agency to spy on the spies.


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