NATO Parliamentarians explore ways to strengthen parliamentary oversight over military intelligence

15 December 2020

Video of the webinar can be found at the bottom of the press release

49 lawmakers from 24 Allied and partner nations, together with parliamentary staff and renowned experts, explored ways to strengthen parliamentary oversight over military intelligence agencies in a webinar on 15 December. The online meeting was co-organised by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) and the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF). The webinar came ahead of the publication of a joint study based, in part, on results from a survey of NATO PA delegations’ practices and processes for oversight of military intelligence agencies.  

Gerald E. Connolly (United States), President of the NATO PA, opened by noting that “the one constant throughout NATO’s history and the key to making this the most successful alliance in history has been an internal commitment to shared, common values. The principle of democratic control of the armed forces and the security sector is a crucial part of these values.”

“As parliamentarians, we have the essential responsibility to carry out effective parliamentary oversight in a rigorous, non-partisan way,” he added. “While preserving the confidentiality which is necessary for our security institutions to conduct their mission, we must keep them accountable to democratically elected authorities. We must ensure they implement the political goals set out by parliaments and governments. Only in this manner will they continue to enjoy the confidence of the citizens they are meant to protect.”

Darko Stancic, Assistant Director and Head of the Europe & Central Asia Division of DCAF, welcomed the webinar’s participants on behalf of the Geneva-based institute. Mr Stancic thanked NATO PA delegations for their input into the upcoming study, underlining the importance of parliamentary oversight over the intelligence community. He noted the interest of DCAF’s international partners in support of reforms which aspire to recognised norms and standards. While no common international standards exist, common values, based on the rule of law and the principles of human rights, certainly do, he said.

One of the upcoming study’s contributors, Dr Mindia Vashakmadze (Senior Research Fellow at The Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law), explored the special character of parliamentary oversight over military intelligence services, noting that regulatory and oversight problems can lead to important accountability deficits. He highlighted a host of specific challenges, for example a diversity of intelligence oversight regimes within a country; occasionally blurry lines between military intelligence and law enforcement activities; management problems within the intelligence community; and problems of access to highly classified information.

Kevan Jones, Deputy Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, provided practical insights into the work of parliamentary oversight. Mr Jones is also Chairperson of the NATO PA’s Science and Technology Committee. He presented a comprehensive overview of the responsibilities of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which oversees the policies, expenditure, administration, and operations of the entire UK Intelligence Community. Mr Jones also emphasised the value of sharing best practice with international counterparts. 

Participants learned that effective parliamentary oversight of military intelligence agencies is complicated by several factors, including underdeveloped statutory regulations; increasingly complex military intelligence activities; scattered administrative structures; and the limited knowledge of parliamentarians and parliamentary staff on such issues. The discussion also addressed military intelligence within the broader framework of parliamentary oversight of the intelligence sector. 

The NATO PA has a long-standing cooperative relationship with DCAF – a cooperation supported and funded by the Swiss government. This cooperation notably encompasses support for the Assembly’s Rose-Roth seminars, parliamentary training programs, as well as the study and promotion of the principles and practices of democratic parliamentary oversight over the security sector.