Controlling and Overseeing Intelligence Services in Democratic States

Hans Born, Marina Caparini


How can democratic societies ensure that intelligence services are able to operate effectively while complying with democratic norms and standards? This book chapter from the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces examines the control and oversight of intelligence services in democratic states. It argues that security and intelligence agencies have special features that make effective control and oversight particularly challenging. Democratic oversight and accountability of intelligence services requires constant vigilance from the executive, legislature, judiciary and civil society.

The challenges of effective control and oversight of intelligence are significant and daunting, particularly in environments where perceptions of threats to security are heightened. The paradox of striving for transparency in an inherently secretive area and the degree of professional discretion that effective intelligence requires are central issues. Nevertheless, the values and norms which are fundamental to democratic systems require that intelligence agencies are accountable and subject to internal control and external oversight.

Horizontal accountability refers to the accountability of state institutions to other state institutions. Vertical accountability refers to accountability within the hierarchy of state institutions and of state institutions to the public. The ‘third dimension’ of accountability refers to the role of international actors in holding state institutions to account. These three forms of accountability highlight the importance for ensuring democratic oversight and accountability of intelligence services of various actors, including:

  • The executive – Ministers exercise control of intelligence through directives and policy guidelines. Governments and intelligence agencies should not have too close a relationship to avoid politicisation of intelligence and weakening of oversight.
  • Intelligence agencies themselves – Directors and senior management can enforce accountability within institutions. Channels for reporting illegal action, together with a commitment to professional ethics and standards, can contribute to accountability.
  • Civil society and the media – Lobbying and advocacy by civil society organisations can influence intelligence policies and hold intelligence agencies and their political masters to account.
  • The legislature – Legislatures can review reports from the intelligence services submitted to parliament and scrutinise intelligence services through specialised committees.
  • The judiciary – Courts can review intelligence service powers and government actions to ensure that they do not violate citizens’ rights.
  • International actors – Donor governments and international organisations can seek to influence state actors on issues such as human rights and democracy.

Control of intelligence services confronts a number of structural problems. Secrecy, the discretionary authority granted to intelligence practitioners, the principle of ‘plausible denial’ and claims of national security all pose challenges for control of intelligence. Oversight and control of intelligence also faces a number of paradoxes:

  • The dependence of oversight committees on the intelligence community versus independence. Oversight committees are highly dependent on the intelligence services for information. Without this information, however, they cannot be effective.
  • The adversary versus advocacy issue. An antagonistic relationship between overseers and intelligence agencies can prevent the sharing of information. A cooperative relationship, however, can lead to the overseer’s loss of independence.
  • Functional versus institutional oversight. Oversight bodies are often established for specific institutions. However, as intelligence becomes the responsibility of various institutions, some may escape oversight.
  • Secrecy and the public interest. Secrecy is vital to many intelligence activities. However, overly stringent restrictions on information are likely to hinder public debate and scrutiny of security agencies and activities.


Caparini, M., 2007, 'Controlling and Overseeing Intelligence Services in Democratic States' in 'Democratic Control of Intelligence Services: Containing Rogue Elephants', Ashgate.