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Democratic Control of Intelligence Services: Containing Rogue Elephants

1 July, 2007


This comprehensive volume discusses the various challenges of establishing and maintaining accountable and democratically controlled intelligence services, drawing both from states with well-established democratic systems and those emerging from authoritarian systems and in transition towards democracy. It adopts a multidisciplinary and comparative approach, identifying good practices to make security services accountable to society and its democratic representatives. The volume will engage both academics and practitioners in the discussion of how to anchor these vital yet inherently difficult to control institutions within a firmly democratic framework. As such, it has clear relevance for these concerned with the control and oversight of intelligence and security issues in many countries.

Book Review

Cicero, the Roman lawyer and orator, wrote “In time of war, the laws fall silent." Editors Born and Caparini have recast this view in modern terms, asking: “whether protecting the security of the state should trump all other objectives and values in society…and preclude any constraints on it?” (4) Nine of the 15 articles in the Democratic Control of Intelligence Services examine the issue from the viewpoints of four Western countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Norway) and five from the former Soviet bloc (Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary). [2] Six articles discuss the fundamental principles of oversight—the law, accountability, freedom of information, data protection—and the need for intelligence. With regard to oversight, which is defined broadly as “management,” they stress the importance of internal controls by inspectors general, as well as those applied by the executive and congressional or parliamentary committees.
The chapters on the former Soviet bloc countries are particularly interesting. They discuss the degrees of progress made since independence, emphasizing the extent to which the principles above have been achieved in each nation and what remains to be done on domestic security and foreign intelligence reforms. The chapters on the Western countries review the procedures and institutions in place to assure democratic control of intelligence and the problems that led to their creation. With the exception of France, each country formed parliamentary oversight committees after questionable conduct by one of its intelligence agencies. In France, while the need for such oversight is recognized, the National Assembly has not endorsed the formation of an oversight commission.
The final chapter reviews the common problems of implementing effective democratic and parliamentary oversight of intelligence, the need for international cooperation, and the lessons learned from the accounts presented. It concludes with proposals for strengthening oversight while maintaining a balance between secrecy and transparency.
While the Democratic Control of Intelligence Services looks closely at what has been and what needs to be done, it does not address the practical problem of the qualifications of those doing the oversight. Nevertheless, it is a valuable book that demonstrates the difficulty of acquiring needed intelligence while protecting basic human rights.
Source:  Studies in Intelligence, vol. 52, nr. 1 (March 2008)


Hans Born and Marina Caparini