DCAF: Overseeing Intelligence Services: A Toolkit (2012)

From Constant Hijzen (Twitter: @ConstantHijzen) I learned about the existence of the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF). It was established in 2000 by the Swiss government and is described as follows on the DCAF website (original emphasis):

The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces – DCAF – is an international foundation whose mission is to assist the international community in pursuing good governance and reform of the security sector. The Centre provides in‐country advisory support and practical assistance programmes, develops and promotes norms and standards, conducts tailored policy research, and identifies good practices and recommendations to promote democratic security sector governance.

A lot of publications are available from DCAF — check it out. The publication Overseeing Intelligence Services: A Toolkit (2012, eds.: Hans Born & Aidan Wills) in the DCAF Handbooks series was pointed out to me by Hijzen and is particularly noteworthy:

DCAF’s toolkit on overseeing intelligence services is a compendium of booklets (tools) written by leading experts on intelligence governance from around the world. It provides policy-relevant information on the establishment and consolidation of independent bodies to oversee state organisations involved in the collection, analysis, production and dissemination of intelligence in the national security domain. The toolkit’s principal innovation is its provision of detailed guidance on the oversight of specific areas of intelligence services’ activities (please see below for a full list of the tools). Acknowledging that there is no single “best” approach to organising and conducting oversight, the toolkit’s guidance is based on examples from almost twenty countries.

The toolkit focuses primarily on oversight by parliamentary committees and expert non-parliamentary bodies (e.g. supreme audit institutions and data protection commissions) and, to a lesser extent, on oversight by (quasi)judicial bodies. The toolkit is, however, likely to be of broad interest to the following groups:

  • persons involved in the design and establishment of oversight systems;
  • civil society organisations and media that monitor and evaluate the work of oversight bodies;
  • members of organisations that are subject to oversight by these bodies; and
  • members and staffers of oversight bodies.

This publication has been made possible by the generous support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

The toolkit contains nine tools that can be downloaded in one file (.pdf, 1.8MB, 222 pages) or per tool (for each tool I cite a few sentences from its introductory chapter):

  1. Tool 1: Introducing Intelligence Oversight (.pdf, Hans Born and Gabriel Geisler)

    “This tool introduces the reader to the subject of intelligence oversight, providing concise answers to the basic questions of who, what, when, how, and why. It also introduces readers to the other tools in this toolkit on intelligence oversight, which collectively provide more elaborate answers to these and other questions.. (…)”


  • Tool 2: Establishing Effective Intelligence Oversight Systems (.pdf, Stuart Farson)

    “This tool examines one of the major topics of security sector reform: the establishment of effective intelligence oversight and accountability mechanisms (particularly legislative mechanisms) in transition states. An immediate question is: are the mechanisms used by established democracies appropriate models for states still in the process of developing and extending modes of democratic governance? The answer depends on the characteristics of the transition state with relevant considerations including the work that its intelligence services are asked to perform, the scope and scale of the services’ activities, and the specific threat environments in which the states exist. In analyzing these factors, one must also take into account broader issues, especially the degree to which the state has developed a democratic political culture and incorporated recognized democratic practices. (…)”


  • Tool 3: Intelligence Transparency, Secrecy, and Oversight in a Democracy (.pdf, Laurie Nathan)

    “(…) This tool focuses on secrecy, openness, and provision of information in relation to intelligence oversight bodies. These bodies include parliament, a parliamentary intelligence oversight committee, the judiciary, a supreme audit institution (SAI), an independent inspector general of intelligence (as in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa), and an expert intelligence oversight body (such as the Review Committee on the Intelligence and Security Services in the Netherlands). The tool outlines the political and conceptual debate around intelligence secrecy and transparency; presents good practice regarding legislation on protection of and access to information; and discusses the intelligence information that is required by parliament and other oversight bodies. It concludes with a set of recommendations. (…)”

  • Tool 4: Conducting Oversight (.pdf, Monica den Boer)

    “(…) This tool explains how oversight bodies investigate the activities of intelligence services. It considers the widest possible range of oversight, from ad hoc investigations to long-term inquiries. In addition, it considers those situations in which multiple standing bodies have oversight responsibilities and those in which no permanent body exists, requiring the creation of a temporary body. (…)”

  • Tool 5: Overseeing Information Collection (.pdf, Lauren Hutton)

    “The purpose of this tool is to examine the role that oversight bodies play in monitoring the information-collection functions of intelligence services. The production of intelligence is a multistep process, requiring tasking, planning, information collection, analysis, and dissemination. Yet of all these steps, it is the collection of information, especially through secret means, that remains the defining characteristic of intelligence services, at least in the public mind. Information collection is one of the most controversial aspects of intelligence work, and it presents an unusual set of challenges to oversight bodies charged with upholding democratic ideals. (…)”

  • Tool 6: Overseeing the Use of Personal Data (.pdf, Ian Leigh)

    “This tool looks at how oversight bodies can ensure that intelligence services use personal data in compliance with the law governing the services. It aims to explain the role that oversight bodies play in examining how intelligence services store, access, and transfer personal data. It does not address the collection of personal data by intelligence services (covered in Hutton—Tool 5) or the sharing of personal data with domestic and foreign partners (covered in Roach—Tool 7). (…)”

  • Tool 7: Overseeing Information Sharing (.pdf, Kent Roach)

    “This tool examines the challenges posed by increased information sharing to the oversight of intelligence services and other branches of government that collect, analyze, and distribute national security information.1 The term information sharing refers herein to information that is exchanged among intelligence services and partner agencies, whether they be foreign or domestic. Although the focus of this tool is principally on oversight bodies, it also considers the human rights and privacy implications of increased information sharing—which may be of interest to other entities such as the judicial and executive branches of government, the media, and civil society. (…)”

  • Tool 8: Financial Oversight of Intelligence Services (.pdf, Aidan Wills)

    “(…) This tool presents a comparative overview of how democratic polities oversee the finances of intelligence services, from the formulation of budgets through to the ex post review of expenditures. Its aim is to highlight good practices. (…)”

  • Tool 9: Handling Complaints about Intelligence Services (.pdf, Craig Forcese)

    “This tool focuses on the role that oversight bodies play in handling complaints about intelligence services from the public, as well as complaints raised by members of the intelligence services. The need for a complaint-handling system is particularly acute for intelligence services because they are ‘often trusted with exceptional powers, such as surveillance or security clearance, which, if used incorrectly or mistakenly, carry the risk of serious injustice to individuals.’ However, the justification for a complaint-handling system goes well beyond remedies for rights breaches. Complaint-handling mechanisms for intelligence services ‘can also bolster accountability by highlighting administrative failings and lessons to be learned, leading to improved performance.’ (…)”


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