THE UNITED States has 17 intelligence agencies that had a collective annual budget of $44 billion in 2005. The CIA alone, whose job is to collect information on foreign governments, companies and individuals, employs an estimated 20,000 people, making it a challenge for civilian oversight to keep tabs.
Virtually all of the information and advice the CIA provides to US policymakers is classified. Lack of oversight of these secret CIA activities has in the past led to many abuses. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed in 1974 that the CIA had assassinated foreign leaders, conducted experiments on its own people, and conducted illegal surveillance on Americans.
The agency has also been criticised for incompetence. It failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 or India’s 1974 nuclear test; it assured President Harry Truman in 1950 that China would not send troops to Korea, six days before one million Chinese soldiers arrived in that country; and it failed to foresee the 9/11 attacks, although this was just as much the fault of the FBI, the country’s counter-intelligence service.
The excesses of the 1970s led to the creation of oversight committees in congress with “the greatest control over intelligence matters of any Western nation”, according to Stephen Knott, a public affairs professor at the University of Virginia. Leaks also became a constant problem, as US politicians are not required to have security clearances to sit on the committees.
Nor was congressional oversight especially effective, as ongoing scandals attest. The FBI and the NSA, the country’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) body, conducted illegal surveillance on hundreds of thousands of people over the past decade.
Freedom of information requests have become one of the most important sources of public oversight of US intelligence agencies. They revealed, for example, that the CIA had destroyed tapes of its agents torturing Al-Qaeda suspects in 2005.
Individual citizens can also demand to see any files the FBI is keeping on them. And the oversight committees submit regular reports on their work to congress, as well as conduct investigations into intelligence failures, such as their claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
“The use of intelligence budget moneys is also discussed by these committees,” said Chase Beamer, spokesman of the US embassy in Bratislava.
In Great Britain, oversight of MI5 (counter-intelligence) and MI6 (foreign intelligence) has become more effective in the past decade. An Intelligence and Security Committee, combining nine security-vetted MPs from all parties, now has access to some of the country's most highly classified information.
It too submits an annual report to parliament, with the most sensitive information redacted.
However, in the UK as well, calls for stronger oversight were heard this year after MI5 was suspected of complicity in the arrest and torture of a terrorism suspect.
“We do not discuss intelligence matters, and neither confirm nor deny, specific questions about operations or people,” said Andrew Pittam, head of the political section at the UK embassy in Bratislava.
24. May 2010 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson