Barriers to Public Oversight of Intelligence Elites

Academics rarely research relationships of influence between civil society and intelligence elites, especially civil society’s ability to publicly hold intelligence elites to account. Reasons include difficulties of accessing officials and official records; problems of interpretation and verification; and perceived political obstacles.

My examination of this small field highlights two important barriers to civil society being able to publicly hold intelligence elites accountable: namely, secrecy and manipulative information provision.

On secrecy, governments maintain that their intelligence agencies require complete secrecy to deliver national security. Consequently, there is minimal transparency of intelligence agencies across liberal democracies. Where important intelligence policies are threatened by exposure, as with Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013 about mass surveillance in the USA, UK and many other liberal democracies, British intelligence elites used three silencing techniques:
1.Self-censorship via Defence Advisory Notices issued to the British press by the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee.
2. For non-compliant press outlets, the silencing technique of threatening and harassing non-compliant media workers was used.
3. In the pipeline is the silencing technique of threatening and harassing the whistle-blower.

On manipulative information provision, intelligence elites try, at key moments, to influence civil society organs (especially the press). While Russian intelligence elite disinformation techniques in generating fake news captured public attention across 2017, three long-standing techniques are evident in the UK today that enable British intelligence elites to drip-feed partial information to the press:
1. Unattributed briefings to selected journalists.
2. Selective declassification to misdirect attention.
3. Using opinion leaders (politicians) to promote the intelligence policy.

Pervasive secrecy, alongside periodic attempts at influence, makes holding intelligence elites publicly accountable a challenging job for civil society.