Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Guantanamo: Can Intelligence Agencies be Democratic?

In this article the author questions whether the methods being used to combat domestic terrorism are in fact contrary to the values they seek to protect. Using the case studies of the US and Pakistan, Camille Maubert looks at the discrepancy between democratic ideals and the often scandalous actions of intelligence agencies.


By Camille Maubert, May 15th, 2012

The superiority of democracy as a political system has become paradigmatic. In effect, it is known to be the best way for a state to simultaneously assert authority on its citizens and protect their basic rights from excessive uses of power. Yet, intelligence agencies are democracies’ Achilles’ heel. Scandals – from Watergate to Abu Graib – penetrated the layers of secrecy and exposed the discrepancies between democratic ideals and intelligence activities.

The Democratic Social Contract – a US case study

The democratic social contract is based on the fundamental assumption that the relation between the state and its constituency – and by extension between intelligence agencies and citizens – must be one of reciprocated duties. In other words, the people accept to relinquish their power to the state on the condition that the latter guarantees to protect their rights. As a result, intelligence agencies in democracies are both empowered and restrained in their autonomy. It is the balance between the apparent diverging interests of the executive – who needs to implement policies – and other branches of power – who want to maintain control – which determines the level of democratization of a given intelligence agency.

In order to assert democratic control on intelligence agencies, a number of measures – constitutional, legislative or administrative – can be taken. Those sets of laws are designed not only to punish rogue behaviors but also to shape the agencies’ work environment in order to prevent invasive policies. Such organs of oversight are backed by interests groups like the media, lawmakers and civil society who provide Congress with direct and indirect monitoring in order to provide assurance of legality, proportionality and propriety for activities that are necessarily conducted in a classified environment. Lastly, a crucial element which differentiates agencies in democracies is their separation along the lines of domestic and foreign activities, drawing on the democratic principle of separation of powers. Indeed, it prevents a potential over-centralization of power which could lead to a rapprochement between intelligence agencies and policy-makers and jeopardize the “firewall” which protects the agencies from partisanship.

Intelligence Agencies in Non-democracies – a Pakistan case study

In non-democracies, intelligence agencies are characterised by a high level of autonomy and intrusion in the state’s political life, as well as unchecked powers to collect and disseminate information for their own interests. The absence of safeguards to protect citizen interests from state power is particularly telling in the case of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which has been blamed for its repeated failures to democratise and its unbalanced civil-military relations. In an environment shaped by ethnic, political and religious disorder and insecurity, the army has come to play the main role in safeguarding Pakistan’s interests against internal division and external aggression. As a result, the ISI has become the army’s unrestrained executive arm. Its standard operating procedures – bribery, intimidation, surveillance, assassination – reveal two processes at play: the politicization of the military and militarization of intelligence agencies. In effect, the leitmotiv tension between national interest and citizens’ rights is being solved by prioritizing state security over democratization. Such predominance of the military, for which the ISI acts as an instrument of control, underscores the weakness of the civilian governments and their inability to assert authority over intelligence and military agencies.

Also, one crucial distinction between intelligence agencies in democracies and in non-democracies is the separation of foreign and domestic activities. While democracies implement a strict separation of agencies, which are subjected to different sets of rules, non-democratic states are often characterized by an overlap between domestic and foreign policies. This means that safeguards that normally protect citizens’ privacy and civil liberties are rendered redundant. Theoretically, the different branches of the ISI and Military Intelligence (MI) have separate foreign and domestic agendas, but in practice, because Pakistan’s ruling elite has a very wide definition of the national interest, intelligence agencies deal with an ever expanding set of issues. Indeed, domestic intelligence gathering – which is supposed to be marginal in democratic societies – seems to have taken precedent over the foreign activities, and methods such as kidnappings, harassment, disinformation and torture have been widely used in an attempt to muzzle political actors unfavorable to the regime.

All attempts to reform the intelligence agencies have failed given the entrenched interests of the – corrupt – Pakistani leadership in preserving the agencies’ autonomy. Indeed, most governments have had a hands-off approach to the ISI issue because civilian regimes cannot afford to alienate the military whose support is crucial for its survival. To this day, Pakistan has yet to see any significant move towards democratization, as the crucial role – and funding – given to the ISI in the War on Terror is likely to further cement the discourse on the indispensability of intelligence agencies’ control over state politics, and cause long term damage to the legitimacy of the state.

Wartime: Closing the Gap between Intelligence Agencies in Democracies and in Non-democracies

From a normative standpoint, intelligence agencies in democracies and non-democracies differ in the capacity of civilian governments to assert authority over their activities. Yet, in the context of war – real or perceived – their relations with the state and civil society are put to a test. Because state interests need to be protected, the question of whether agencies should prioritize national security or democratic principles, stability or justice, is at the center of the debate.

The American discourse in the War on Terror systematically draws on democratic values in order to justify its fight against terrorism. According to the CIA, “Ultimately, our fight against terrorism will help foster an international environment where our democratic interests are secure and the values of liberty are respected around the world”. However, scandals regarding disappearances and deaths of detainees in US overseas custody suggest that this discourse is very weak and that it is used as a facade for a more complex reality. Indeed, there has been a clear rapprochement between the executive and intelligence agencies and an erosion of democratic oversight. The US administration created a rationale which could justify the use of un-democratic and unlawful methods by intelligence agencies on the grounds of protecting the homeland and American citizens from an existential threat. This process also creates acceptance of practices that would be unconceivable by a democracy in normal times.

As a result, the Department of Defence was empowered proportionally to the presidential supremacy, and grew closer to the CIA, which has been diverted from its unique intelligence mission and now behaves like an independent actor with increased authority, its own clandestine bureaucracy, and whose un-accountability seems to be institutionalised. This reduced distinction between intelligence and decision-making, and the transformation of the CIA as the direct arm of the executive, is exemplified by the Authorisation for the Use of Military Force, which grants the president and intelligence agencies with broad authority to use necessary power and to secretly gather intelligence on Al Qaeda, opening the way for the abduction, torture and extraordinary rendition. Arguably, the War on Terror corrupted the fragile democratic balance between state security and civil liberties, deforming the very notion of democracy that serves as an infinitely expansible grant of authority; empowering the US to do whatever it wants because by definition its acts on freedom’s behalf.

Lastly, the transnational terrorist threat brings a new dimension to the issue of the separation of intelligence agencies on a foreign vs. domestic basis. Indeed, the War on Terror is intelligence-intensive, which means that the government’s data-mining capabilities must augment considerably, especially given the fact that intelligence agencies target both home-grown and foreign terrorists. In fact, the firewall that separates foreign and domestic activities has been dissolved by executive orders like the Patriotic Act, and the cooperation between foreign intelligence agencies (CIA) and law enforcement agencies (FBI) has increased to enlarge the scope of material available to the services. This new approach to domestic counter-terrorism, some fear, would allow the use of intelligence and military methods against individuals, including citizens, found in the US and fully protected by the Constitution. In a context whereby the 9/11 intelligence failure is omnipresent and in which the government needs to be seen in control, methods used to counter domestic terrorism seem to be at odds with the very society they attempt to protect.


Camille Maubert is an international security researcher based in London. Her work focuses on security, intelligence and counter-insurgency, with a specific interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She is currently completing a Masters degree at King’s College War Studies Department.

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