Intelligence Oversight and the Security of the State

Publisert: 28. sep. 2017

A key task for intelligence oversight in democracies is to ensure that the intelligence services operate and carry out their mandated duties within the constraints of national and international law. As the control of the activities and methods of intelligence services necessarily involves a group of overseers who gain access to classified information about state secrets, democratic oversight inherently entails a security dimension. To date, the degree to which democratic oversight might affect state security has not been investigated in depth by Security or Intelligence Studies, although the issue has occasionally come up. After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., somewhat risk-averse services, due to extensive oversight, were mentioned as possible explanation for the intelligence failures leading to the catastrophic events.

Most mature Western democracies have lately established various mechanisms of independent intelligence oversight, as part of their system of checks and balances with the executive power. Thus, the question of how oversight might, or might not, harm the security concerns of the state is of considerable interest. As intelligence oversight is a fairly new institutionalized activity in many democracies, and as the matters discussed by the “overseers at work” are often classified, a deficit exists in public knowledge about this topic. Important, therefore, is greater knowledge and appreciation of the factors and issue areas likely to be the most important when assessing how intelligence oversight affects state security concerns.

Interviews in 2016 with security experts from the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands provide in-depth knowledge of how intelligence oversight relates to matters of state security. They offer a better understanding of what factors should be considered by oversight bodies, secret services, and legislators when setting up and implementing effective democratic oversight of intelligence activities, in order not to weaken the security of the state.