One thing has become clear after the revelations of multiple New Zealand intelligence agency failures, malfeasance and incompetence over the past few years. That is what happens when there is no effective oversight on, or accountability by those agencies. As things stand the Prime Minster is the sole oversight on New Zealand’s intelligence community. The parliamentary intelligence and security committee is a toothless wonder that gets semi-regular general briefings on intelligence matters (at a rate of less than once a month), and the inspector general (IG) of intelligence–the person who is supposed to independently investigate the actions of the intelligence community–is currently a geriatric former judge who has the equivalent of a .5 full time employee and whose office and resources are provided by the agencies he is supposed to independently assess. His predecessor, another retired judge, resigned under a cloud brought about by the Ahmed Zaoui political asylum Â case, where the Security Intelligence Services (SIS) Â was shown to have clearly manipulated analysis of intelligence flows derived from foreign partners and the IG demonstrated bias in favor of Â the SIS version Â of events prior to releasing his findings.
Add to that the fact that the IG has limited powers of investigation and a parliamentary committee that cannot be told about operational matters and has no powers to subpoena or authority to force testimony under oath, and what you have is a recipe for institutional “stretch:” the tendency of institutions to exceed and play loose with the rules, laws and regulations governing their charter in the absence of effective oversight and accountability. That has become glaring apparent in recent weeks.
The problem is somewhat mitigated when the Prime Minister is a hands-on type of manager who is knowledgeable about intelligence matters, to include methods of collection and analysis. Although it raises the possibility of PM misuse of intelligence flows for political purposes, it does have the merit of forcing intelligence officials to be accountable to someone. However, if the PM is disinterested, ignorant or laissez-faire in managerial approach to intelligence matters, then the possibility of intelligence agency institutional stretch becomes quite real, as we have now seen.
Given the revelations about the GCSB and prior instances of SIS “stretch,” the time is now perfect for a reform of the intelligence oversight apparatus. Although the PM can and should remain as the minister for intelligence and security, the parliamentary committee needs to be granted effective and binding oversight authority that includes powers to investigate operational issues and force intelligence agency officials of all ranks Â to respond under oath to questions about the how, when and why of specific intelligence matters. Likewise, the Inspector General’s position needs to be expanded into a three person panel that includes a mix of people with experience in handling sensitive information and knowledge of how intelligence collection and analysis works, and who answer to and are resourced by parliament rather than the PM and SIS, respectively.
Unchecked executive oversight of intelligence agencies is prone to what might be called the authoritarian tendency (by which elected executives assume quasi-dictatorial powers of managerial control), and is in fact the mark of many authoritarian regimes. This avoids the system of checks and balances that is not only a hallmark of democratic political systems, but of their institutional component as well. The issue, as the intelligence community well knows, is about triangulation: there needs to be at least three independent (if overlapped) sources of critical institutional scrutiny for information or oversight to be validated (which are manifest in policy or administrative decisions).
That system of institutional checks and balances is what provides oversight and promotes accountability within public bureaucracies as a whole. Such accountability is horizontal–between different public agencies such as the judiciary and security apparatus–as well as vertical (where public agencies answer to political authorities separated into legislative and executive components). The institutionalized oversight aggregate mitigates against public agency stretch and political manipulation.
Having one individual, whatever his or her persuasion with regard to issues of intelligence collection, analysis and political impact (something driven by the political context of the moment, including Â the relationship between government and opposition and the Â personal and partisan implications of any given decision regarding security and intelligence) is, in a democracy, antithetical. In mature democracies policy decisions are not individualized; they are institutionalized and subject to effective oversight.
This is simply a matter of democratic good practice. Effective, independent oversight not only keeps intelligence agencies honest and prevents institutional stretch. It reassure the voting public that the larger common interest, rather than narrow political, diplomatic or corporate concerns, are served by the intelligence and security agencies charged with defending the commonweal.