Ethical Scenario

Learning Goal: I’m working on a psychology project and need support to help me learn.


The effectiveness of your intelligence service has been put into question. It has repeatedly failed to provide a correct diagnosis of the intended economic policy actions of Country B, a Tier 1 foreign country. Your intelligence agency is responsible for providing economic intelligence on conditions and developments in foreign countries, and your country’s national economic interests have been damaged by the inactivity of your country’s economic policymakers regarding Country B. There are voices from within the government questioning the usefulness of your service engaging in economic intelligence, considering that there are other government departments that already gather economic information and deliver analysis to intelligence consumers.

In the context of a forthcoming round of negotiations on an important bilateral trade agreement, top management at the service feels there is an opportunity for changing perceptions of policymakers on the value added by the agency’s analytical products in the economic field. Top management also believes that it is important to show the value of applying your service’s “unique resources and capabilities” to economic intelligence collection.

The service, and especially your team, has a key role in informing the position of your country’s delegation its chief negotiator, which includes providing advance knowledge on the negotiating position of Country B regarding the agriculture sector. Such knowledge would affect the ability of your country to obtain the best possible deal in the negotiation from the potential partner while conceding the least. A better deal for your country means a worse deal for the other one. The chief negotiator requires the best intelligence on the bargaining ranges of Country B.

In the past, your team has experienced problems with a human source whose reliability was evaluated erroneously and is currently judged as C (fairly reliable). There has not been enough time to develop other primary intelligence sources, except for an expert close to Country B’s delegation whose reliability cannot be judged (has not been used in the past).

Trade talks have kicked off. Information reported by the regular source contradicts the main judgment derived from open sources.

Suddenly, your team receives last-minute information from the second human source that is consistent with the information provided by the first one. However, there is not enough time to send the report forward and properly describe the quality and reliability of the sources.

Top management at the service is disappointed in your unit’s incapacity to provide more than the other departments provide by just using open sources. Your agency’s head of the Office of Economic Research and Analysis and the continuity of your office are walking a tightrope. However, an erroneous decision by the chief negotiator can damage a potential agreement and cost billions of dollars for the country and employment opportunities for many families.

QUESTION: Should your team send the intelligence report forward without these nuances to meet the deadline?

Questions to consider as you formulate your argument:

  • Which principles or standards are the most important in intelligence analysis?
  • How does timeliness affect the usefulness of intelligence reports?
  • How does source reference citation influence insights?
  • Should there be a hierarchy of analytic principles?
  • Do you think intelligence services’ managers favor secret over open sources of information? In affirmative case, can it potentially harm objectivity?


Country Z is rapidly becoming the most serious concern for Country X’s security. Country X has requested an assessment on the status of Country Z’s biological weapons (BW) program. Policymakers believe that Country Z has violated the provisions of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), to which Country Z is a state party. Country Z’s possession of an offensive BW program would not only pose a significant threat to Country X but would also destabilize the whole area. More precisely, there is concern over a hypothetical secret program involving the use of the bacterium called Baccilus anthracis, or anthrax. The rarest but most dangerous category of human anthrax is inhalation anthrax (skin and gastrointestinal anthrax are the other forms). The infection results from the direct exposition and breathing of pathogenic anthrax spores suspended in the air, being lethal in 99 percent of the cases. International organizations and states are seriously concerned about its potential as a biological warfare agent. Although the president of Country Z has a history of being involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), he currently denies the existence of a secret program for developing pathogenic anthrax. He argues that research and development on the bacterium developed by his country are intended for peaceful use and has reminded his critics of the legitimacy of such a program. Since the equipment and technology surrounding the BWC is intrinsically of dual use, there is a fine line between peaceful defensive and malicious offensive use.

Country X’s primary source of intelligence on Country Z’s WMD programs has been a defector who has been providing information over the past few years. The last international inspections on Country Z’s facilities did not find evidence of BW activities.

Robert is an analyst who works at Country X’s main intelligence agency. He specializes in counter-proliferation analysis and BW. Robert agrees with outside, highly qualified experts in judging that the likelihood that Country Z is currently involved in developing anthrax for offensive intentions against Country X is “likely”, which equates to 51 to 70 percent in the range of uncertainty. However, Robert is conscious of his intelligence service’s mind-set and policymakers’ views that Country Z has an active offensive BW program and has intentions to use it against Country X. There are a number of layers in the review process until the finished product is ready for dissemination, and, thus, there are also high chances that a reviewer will assign a higher confidence and a higher likelihood to the main judgment on Country Z’s BW program.

QUESTION: Given the current possibility that his analytic judgment will be modified in the review process toward this preexisting mind-set and policymakers’ views, should Robert assign a lower likelihood by using the words “even chance” (50 percent) instead of “likely” deliberately as a shield against analytic bias and politicization?

Questions to consider as you formulate your argument:

  • Why do words matter in intelligence?
  • How can analysts guard themselves against politicization?
  • How can we bring transparency to the analytic process?
  • Should words for conveying uncertainty be standardized?
  • Do you think that a string of edits and reviews blurs the responsibility for the intelligence outcome.

The above scenarios ethical scenarios that may pose a moral dilemma for intelligence analysts in the national security and competitive business communities while carrying out their duties. The scenarios are inspired either entirely or in part by real events, and they address dilemmas related to the ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility, the prioritization of conflicting standards under certain circumstances, and the ethical significance of choosing words.

Prepare ethical arguments for and against the course of action highlighted in the question posed at the bottom of each scenario. As you craft your “yes” and “no” responses for each scenario, consider the other questions that are identified beneath each scenario. Each argument should be no longer than one page (so no more than four pages for the entire assignment), clearly articulate and justify a course of action, and present the risks and/or harms that could result from the course of action being taken. The four positions that students submit will be graded on thoughtfulness, clarity of writing, and discussion of key concepts raised in each scenario’s auxiliary questions.

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