Parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies

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"Parliamentary approval of the creation, mandate and powers of security agencies is a necessary but not sufficient condition for upholding the rule of law. A legal foundation increases the legitimacy both of the existence of these agencies and the (often exceptional) powers that they possess." Though mechanisms for ensuring accountability of the executive to the Parliament are in place for most aspects of government in India, such mechanisms are completely absent for the oversight of intelligence agencies. In India, various intelligence agencies such as the Research and Analysis Wing, and the Intelligence Bureau are creations of administrative orders, and are not subject to scrutiny by Parliament. This is in direct contrast to the practise of the Legislature's oversight of intelligence agencies in most countries.  Though different countries have different models of exercising such oversight, the common principle - that activities of intelligence agencies should be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny, remains uniform.

In the US for example, both the House and the Senate have a Committee which exercises such scrutiny.  These are House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, established in 1977, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, created in 1976.  Both committees have broad powers over the intelligence community.  They oversee budgetary appropriations as well as legislation on this subject.  In addition, the House Committee can do something which the Senate can not:  “tactical intelligence and intelligence-related activities.”  This gives the Committee the power to look into actual tactical intelligence, and not just broader policy issues.  Intelligence agencies are also governed by a variety of laws which clearly lay out a charter of responsibilities, as well as specific exemptions allowing such agencies to do some things other government agencies ordinarily cannot. (For source, click here) In UK, the Intelligence Services Act of 1994 set up a similar framework for intelligence organisations in the UK, and also set up a mechanism for legislative oversight.  The Act set up a Committee which should consists mostly of Members of Parliament.  The members are appointed by the Prime Minister in consultation with the leader of opposition, and the Committee reports to the Prime Minister.  The Prime Minister is required to present the report of the Committee before Parliament. (For the Act, click here) Recently, the Committee has expressed concerns in its 2009-10 report over the fact that it is financially dependent on the Prime Minister's office, and that there could be a conflict of interest considering it is practically a part of   the government over which it is supposed to express oversight. (For the report, click here) A study titled "Making Intelligence Accountable: Legal Standards and Best Practice" captures the best components of Parliamentary oversight of intelligence bodies.  Some of these are:

  1. The entire intelligence community, including all ancillary departments and officials, should be covered by the mandate of one or more parliamentary oversight bodies.
  2. The mandate of a parliamentary oversight body might include some or all of the following (a) legality, (b) efficacy, (c) efficiency, (d) budgeting and accounting; (e) conformity with relevant human rights Conventions (f) policy/administrative aspects of the intelligence services.
  3. The recommendations and reports of the parliamentary oversight body should be (a) published; (b) debated in parliament; (c) monitored with regard to its implementation by the government and intelligence community.
  4. The resources and legal powers at the disposal of the parliamentary oversight body should match the scope of its mandate.
  5. Parliament should be responsible for appointing and, where necessary, removing members of a body exercising the oversight function in its name.
  6. Representation on parliamentary oversight bodies should be cross-party, preferably in accordance with the strengths of the political parties in parliament.
  7. Government ministers should be debarred from membership (and parliamentarians should be required to step down if they are appointed as ministers) or the independence of the committee will be compromised. The same applies to former members of agencies overseen.
  8. The oversight body should have the legal power to initiate investigations; Members of oversight bodies should have unrestricted access to all information which is necessary for executing their oversight tasks.
  9. The oversight body should have power to subpoena witnesses and to receive testimony under oath.
  10. The oversight body should take appropriate measures and steps in order to protect information from unauthorised disclosure.
  11. The committee should report to parliament at least yearly or as often as it deems necessary.
  12. The oversight body should have access to all relevant budget documents, provided that safeguards are in place to avoid leaking of classified information.