Handling Ethical Problems in Counterterrorism

Two police officers of British Transport during a demonstration in central London, November 9, 2011


Counterterrorism professionals routinely face decisions that appear to require trade-offs between moral values such as privacy, liberty and security, and broader human rights considerations. Given that ethics are integral to this field, it is essential that counterterrorism professionals are proficient at making these types of decision. However, there is no existing overview of the methods that may support ethical decision-making specifically aimed at counterterrorism practitioners.

To address this gap, the Research and Documentation Centre (Wetenschappelijk Onderzoeken Documentatiecentrum, WODC) of the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice (Ministerie van Veiligheid en Justitie), on behalf of the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security (Nationaal Coördinator Terrorismebestrijding en Veiligheid, NCTV), commissioned RAND Europe to develop an inventory of methods to support ethical decision-making for the counterterrorism field.


The objective of the study was not to recommend which methods should be developed, strengthened or implemented in the Netherlands. Rather, the aim was to outline the methods that counterterrorism professionals could draw on to support their ethical decision-making process.

The tools used by professionals to address ethical problems vary greatly by sector and by country. While some methods are formal and institutionalised in certain settings, they may be more implicit in others. For instance, moral case deliberation is a well-established method in the Netherlands that remains relatively unknown in the United Kingdom. Yet, British professionals routinely engage in a process comparable to moral case deliberation. Similarly, the degree to which ethics training is formal, practical or at the heart of the curriculum will vary depending on the institution concerned. This report aims to provide an overview of the types of method that could be used by counterterrorism professionals, supported by illustrative examples of how these methods are applied.

Research Methodology

In order to address this objective, we explored the methods available in different sectors – the military, intelligence, police, counterterrorism, healthcare and social work – and across countries, namely the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, France. The research team aimed to identify the most common ethical problems in counterterrorism in order to contextualise the practical application of these methods. The evidence base was built from a structured literature review and an extensive phase of expert interviews. Given that the volume of literature sources was significantly larger for healthcare than other sectors, the insights from expert interviews allowed the team to develop an overview of the sectors within a limited amount of time. They also allowed the research team access to evidence that is not published.


Our review suggests that we may distinguish six main types of methods that can support ethical decision-making:

  1. Mitigation methods to reduce the likelihood of certain ethical problems arising and/or of certain situations leading to unethical decision-making.
  2. Professional development methods to cultivate individuals’ capacity to identify, reflect on and respond to ethical problems.
  3. Guidance methods to provide professionals with an easily accessible reminder of the laws, policies and norms of their institution.
  4. Leadership methods to reinforce ethical practice in the organisation, including leadership by example and direction from superiors.
  5. Advice methods to provide direction on ethical decision-making.
  6. Oversight methods to ensure that there is an independent check on the ethicality of decisions in place.

Each category may be applied by using a range of tools. For example, advice methods may include instruments or methods such as ethics consultants, legal advisors, peer support and ethics committees.

Our analysis also suggests that the context of ethical decision-making in the field of counterterrorism tends to have four common features:

  1. Secrecy, which results from the sensitivity of counterterrorism material and may constrain the individuals who are involved in deciding how to respond to a particular problem.
  2. Low-frequency and high-impact nature of terrorist attacks, which has sometimes translated into preference for the elimination of risk and may lead to disproportionately constraining civil liberties to protect the safety of citizens.
  3. Extensive collaboration, driven by the fact that counterterrorism operations may be international or involve sectors ranging from the police to social workers.
  4. Time sensitivity of some counterterrorism problems, under which professionals are required to make decisions on the basis of imperfect information, quickly and often independently, despite potential implications for core civil liberties, including life and death.

Although these features are not unique to counterterrorism, collectively they create particular challenges for practitioners in the field.


Project Team

Anais Reding
Kate Robertson
Agnieszka Walczak
Chris Giacomantonio
Stijn Hoorens