Need for Public oversight of Intelligence Elites by Civil Society

Intelligence agencies are public servants that work to further the national interest, aiming to keep the nation safe and secure. Some secrecy is necessary to fulfill this function. As a result, liberal democracies use official, internal mechanisms to oversee intelligence agencies, thereby enabling secrecy to be maintained.

In the UK, these official, internal mechanisms of intelligence agency oversight are found within the legislature, comprising closed committees such as the Intelligence and Security Committee. They are also found in the judiciary. This consists of secret courts (the Investigatory Powers Tribunal); and the Investigatory Powers Commission made up of serving or former senior judges (newly created by the Investigatory Powers Act 2016).

In the USA, internal oversight mechanisms are found within intelligence agencies themselves (Inspectors General). They are found within the legislature, comprising closed committees such as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. They are also found in the judiciary, comprising secret courts, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Yet, such internal oversight mechanisms have not prevented contemporary policies that contravene human rights, or that, on exposure, generate significant public concern. This failure arises because of lack of knowledge, lack of sanction, or through favouring national security over upholding human rights norms.  

For instance, academic research shows that:

  • In the USA, the George W. Bush administration’s Detention and Interrogation Program (2001-2008) contravened the human rights to freedom from torture and enforced disappearance: and the British government’s complicity in this programme is increasingly evidenced.
  • Contemporary Anglo-American mass surveillance policies that secretly engage in bulk data collection of citizens’ digital communications challenge the human rights to privacy and freedom of expression, generating ‘chilling effects’ on public discourse.
  • Official intelligence agency oversight mechanisms failed to prevent the politicisation of intelligence, when the administrations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair selectively, and deceptively, used intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction to generate political and public support for invading Iraq in 2003.

Such periodic failures of internal oversight place an onus on civil society to publicly and critically interrogate intelligence elites. Greater public accountability should also increase transparency and build public trust in intelligence agencies. However, civil society faces many obstacles.