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5. Democratic accountability of intelligence services


I. Introduction

II. The challenge of oversight

III. Executive oversight: addressing politically sensitive intelligence issues

IV. Parliamentary oversight: inside or outside the ring of secrecy?

V. Non-political oversight: the role of courts and independent bodies 

VI. Conclusions


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Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA and the invasion of Iraq, much attention has focused on the professional adequacy of the Western world’s intelligence services, the risk of their role and findings being distorted by political measures, and alleged human rights abuses. This has led to public and parliamentary special investigations into claims of failings or misconduct by intelligence services in a number of countries—examples include the 9/11 Commission in the USA; the Hutton Inquiry in the United Kingdom; the Arar Commission in Canada; the German special parliamentary inquest; and the Dutch Parliament’s request for an investigation into the alleged torture practices of the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service in Iraq. Concerns about the external accountability of intelligence services are clearly high on the public policy agenda.


Concern about democratic oversight of the intelligence services is, however, not just a phenomenon of the past five years. Comparative research on intelligence accountability reveals that, over the past 30 years, several states have moved towards greater accountability. Although executive oversight of intelligence is well established, the introduction of parliamentary and independent oversight mechanisms is comparatively recent, having come into existence only between the 1970s and 1990s in different states. The states compared are all democracies whose legislatures have adopted laws that put the functioning of their intelligence services on a legal footing and to provide for oversight of intelligence. They include Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Africa, the UK and the USA.


Intelligence oversight systems in these countries are confronted with several recurring challenges and problems:
•  balancing the legitimate need for transparency with the operational need for secrecy of operations, sources and methods;
•  the danger of politicization and executive misuse of the intelligence services;
•  the challenge of establishing democratic oversight of intelligence services in post-authoritarian and post-communist states; and
•  the challenge for national oversight institutions of keeping track of international intelligence cooperation.
The extent to which the relatively young oversight systems in existence are capable of fully addressing these challenges in the post-11 September climate remains to be seen.



Dr Hans Born (Netherlands) is a Senior Fellow in Democratic Governance of the Security Sector at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF).


Professor Ian Leigh (UK) is Professor of Law at the University of Durham, specializing in public law and human rights, and Co-Director of the Durham Human Rights Centre.