What are Intelligence Elites?

Intelligence elites’ comprise the small number of leaders in interlocking political, economic and military domains that make fundamental decisions on policies concerning intelligence that have far-reaching consequences for all citizens.

These fundamental decisions concern whether the policy is needed and what its broad parameters should constitute. They do not concern minor decisions such as how best to implement a policy. Fundamental decisions concerning intelligence may include new directions in how intelligence is collected and to what ends the intelligence is used.

For instance, everyone is affected by decisions to use newly conceived ‘harsh interrogation techniques’ (torture) to collect human intelligence when interrogating detained terrorist suspects. This can initiate norm regress concerning hard won, international human rights as politicians argue that torture works and is a useful policy option in ticking time-bomb situations.

Everyone is affected by decisions to expand the collection of signal intelligence through ‘bulk data collection’ (mass surveillance) of digital communications. This is privacy-invasive and generates ‘chilling effects’ on populations.

Everyone is affected by decisions to selectively publicise intelligence, and to make intelligence appear more certain than it actually is, in order to justify starting a pre-emptive war. This can send countries to war on erroneous, false and deceptive premises. Beyond the immediate casualties of war, and wider unintended consequences (such as radicalisation and civil war), there are long-lasting consequences for the public’s trust in the intelligence elites who argued for war.

Yet, the term intelligence elites should not imply an omnipotent monolith steeped in conspiracy. Instead, it evinces the normally close relationship between top politicians and intelligence agencies; the deferential relationship to intelligence agencies from wider politicians; and the secret involvement of private companies. These three factors make parliamentary scrutiny of intelligence elites difficult.

The term intelligence elites further highlights the exclusion of civil society in the process of oversight. Given the secrecy surrounding intelligence, oversight of intelligence agencies is largely limited to internal intelligence agency mechanisms, or to non-public elements of the legislature and judiciary.