The Review Network
The first International Meeting of Inspectors General of Intelligence and Security was held in Canberra, Australia, in November 1997. Office holders responsible for reviewing the activities of all or parts of the security and intelligence community of their respective countries were present from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, South Africa and Canada. The South African delegates were afforded a warm welcome given that their country's national institutions, particularly their security and intelligence agencies, are in transition following the end of apartheid.
The meeting was held at the initiative of the former Australian Inspector General, in honour of the tenth anniversary of his Office. It provided a welcome opportunity for participants to exchange information and ideas, to discuss trends and to compare models for effective review and oversight.
A broad array of options and alternatives was apparent in the mandates and organizational arrangements of the Inspectors General represented at the meeting. Some have legislated mandates, such as those in Australia, New Zealand and Canada's Inspector General of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (csis). Others are independent of, or embedded in, the agencies they oversee. The mandates of Inspectors General in the United States run the gamut of these alternatives, and there do not appear to be hard and fast rules regarding the scope of their responsibilities or their degree of independence from the agency under their review.
It was also interesting to note the array of options for parliamentary review and oversight mechanisms. Representing the parliamentary review model were members of the United Kingdom's Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, described as a committee of parliamentarians rather than a formal statutory committee of Parliament; Canada's Security Intelligence Review Committee, composed of three to five Privy Councillors appointed by the government to review the activities of csis; and members of the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, a committee of parliamentarians in South Africa where the government is in the process of identifying a model for intelligence oversight. In addition, participants met with Australia's Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (asio) as part of the program.
While there were obvious commonalities, a wide range of mandated review or oversight activities was evident among the participants. These included such responsibilities as
- monitoring the lawfulness of the agency's activities,
- safeguarding the rights of citizens,
- investigating incidents and operational activities that generated public controversy,
- investigating complaints received from a variety of sources,
- investigating security practices, access to information and privacy concerns,
- monitoring activities and reporting findings to the legislative or the executive arm of government, and
- providing assurance to the responsible Minister or member of Cabinet.
Some participants had responsibilities as diverse as investigating fraud, waste and abuse of resources and uncovering criminal activity.
Each country's review and oversight mechanisms tend to be structured according to the division of roles, mandates and powers between their parliamentary and non-parliamentary bodies, or their executive and legislative branches of government. The division of these elements is influenced by a variety of factors, such as
- the presence or absence of enabling legislation for the agencies under review,
- the nation's preference for parliamentary versus non-parliamentary (or executive versus legislative) responsibility for review and oversight of security and intelligence agencies,
- the existence of other statutory bodies (in Canada, for example, the Information and Privacy Commissioners and the Auditor General).
It was clear that in each country represented, a determination had been made regarding the best means of achieving effective review or oversight, drawing from the pool of expertise represented by elected officials, parliamentary appointees and bureaucrats.
There was consensus that review and oversight had evolved over the years and would continue to evolve, particularly in those countries where enabling legislation has been enacted most recently. Of particular note was the general agreement that the very presence of review and oversight mechanisms tends to alter the dynamics of security and intelligence agencies, causing them to assess and, if necessary, modify the way they conduct business. Over time, these agencies have begun to appreciate that there are benefits to review and oversight, including the capability to identify and resolve problems within their own walls.
Despite the differing review and oversight mandates of those present, a number of common issues and themes emerged. For example, increased demands for greater transparency and accountability in government were a common backdrop to the activities of all participants.
Independence and objectivity were identified as essential to successful review. Overall, relationships between the review or oversight bodies and their respective agencies were characterized as formal, proper and generally cordial. All participants agreed that maintaining independence and building confidence and credibility, not only with the agency being reviewed but with the public, is a constant and delicate balancing act. They also acknowledged the inherent difficulty of maintaining public confidence on those occasions when they find no fault in the activities of the bodies they oversee or review. There was consensus, however, that maintaining the right balance was facilitated by time and experience.
The Canberra meeting opened the door for further discussions during the year. In March, I had the opportunity to pursue some of these themes in further detail when the members of the United Kingdom's Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee visited Ottawa as part of their North American agenda of consultations. Subsequently, in April, my staff had fruitful discussions with some of my American counterparts in Washington, D.C.
To sum up, it was clear from these discussions that review and oversight mechanisms are relatively new features in the security and intelligence community worldwide, and that they continue to evolve. They play an important role in responding to calls for greater transparency and accountability in government. By their very presence, these mechanisms encourage security and intelligence agencies to assess and, if necessary, modify the way they conduct business.
I am of the opinion that our small community of independent monitors can continue to reap significant benefits by sharing their collective wisdom on these topics.
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