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Strategic Deception in Modern Democracies: Ethical, Legal, and Policy Challenges


Edited by Dr. Carolyn Pumphrey, Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II.

January 2004

Brief Synopsis

In an effort to strip away some of that baggage and get at the root of the nature, extent, and potential applications of strategic deception, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS) and the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) held a conference on October 31-November 1, 2003, at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The purpose of the conference was to address the ethical, legal, and policy challenges that arise when democratic governments use deception. The Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy and Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics participated as cosponsors. Presenters and attendees included military historians, philosophers and ethicists, members of the military and intelligence communities, lawyers, businesspersons, and members of the press.

Key Insights

• Some consensus exists regarding the definition of strategic deception—the intentional manipulation, distortion, or falsification of information to mislead an adversary. However, significant ethical, legal, and political questions persist concerning the conditions under which modern democracies should apply it.
• Modern democracies assume that the use of deception will undermine trust, corrupt democratic processes, and erode fundamental democratic values. However, the specific conditions under which this assumption would prove correct (or incorrect) remain unexamined.
• Modern democracies, such as the United States, have ample tools available for employing strategic deception effectively. However, no liberal-democratic theory or doctrine for its use currently exists. Abstract guidelines, such as the Kantian Categorical Imperative, invariably fail when applied to the practical world of international politics.
• Notwithstanding the importance of the rule of law to modern democracies, ethical and political concerns actually hinder the use of strategic deception far more than do legal constraints.
• U.S. political and military leadership should invest more in achieving a better understanding of the potential long- and short-term costs of employing strategic deception. Presumably, such a cost-benefit analysis already takes place in the development of national strategy. However, the effects of globalization might aggravate those costs in ways that are not fully understood.


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