Oversight and intelligence networks: who guards the guardians (GUARDINT / ANR-ORA)

Coordinateur du projet :  Didier BIGO

Membres de l'équipe CERI : Félix TREGUER, post-doctorant, et Bernardino LEON REYES, doctorant

Aims and background of the research proposed

Are we sleepwalking into a surveillance society and a non-cooperative international system? In the face of transnationally expanding intelligence networks, data collection and sharing, are fundamental principles at risk, such as the rule of law and respect for human rights The collaborative research project between Scineces-Po Paris, King’s College London, WZB and Stiftung Neue Verantwortung Berlin, designed to address and to redress the gap between increasingly transnational surveillance practices and still largely national oversight mechanisms. Since the mid-1990s, technological transformations resulting from increased digitisation of everyday life have changed the way in which intelligence agencies operate at a distance. Today, digital traces left by almost every transactions and mundane actions are stored and collected for commercial or security purposes. While civil society actors have argued that these developments go beyond what is acceptable for democratic regimes, debates about intelligence oversight have tended to focus on technical and legal measures for ensuring compliance rather than on democratic principles and their effective implementation (Schlanger 2015). Mandates and mechanisms for oversight have remained largely national, while intelligence collection and sharing has shifted more to the international stage (BosOllermann 2017).

Such discrepancies in accountability undermine legitimacy, which in turn can blur the boundaries that have heretofore separated democratic from other types of regimes. But despite their apparent fragility, inadequacy and limitations, the oversight bodies and their accountability mechanisms remain keys to grasping the specificities and challenges for contemporary democracies in a digital, transnational world. How can oversight bodies establish a common craft of democratic oversight and transnational democratic solidarity, and through which practices?

GUARDINT is intended to shed light on the limitations, failures or successes of existing oversight mechanisms. It proposes a novel approach to oversight, viewing it as a necessary aspect of democratic life and an integral component of transnational cooperation, especially in case where transnational intelligence services collaboration led to gross violations on human right and freedom. To this end, we will pursue four main objectives:

  1. Collect, analyse, assess and transfer knowledge on the different bodies that have the capacity to play an oversight role regarding intelligence services within the EU. This will be done through an in-depth analysis of the specific cases in France, Germany and the UK respectively, with the aim of providing a platform for oversight practitioners, where they can share their experiences and learn from one another. At present, there are few systematic accounts of intelligence oversight. Existing studies have been largely country-specific and they have not taken into account the extent to which oversight mechanisms in Europe may (or may not) be adequate not just nationally, but also internationally as regards transnational intelligence cooperation. Therefore, GUARDINT will focus on capacity building, knowledge transfer and connecting expertise on intelligence oversight. Our analysis will generate an online database of legal documents, reports and regulatory frameworks related to intelligence oversight. Germany will lead this part.
  2. We will develop a methodology for a composite intelligence oversight index in order to assess the performance of different oversight bodies. To date, there are no common criteria in academic and public debates for assessing the performance of intelligence oversight. We will draw on existing indices, including the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Democracy Index and the Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index to develop a proof-of-concept for a composite index for intelligence oversight. In addition to indices such as those for freedom, democracy or corruption, an intelligence oversight index would become an important device for strengthening democratic practices. It would create a common knowledge base that seeks to reflect accurately how oversight is implemented; this would consist in various rankings of individual oversight bodies based on different performances within our three target countries. Our composite index would include transnational - not just national - variables to assess the quality of oversight and accountability mechanisms nationally. A composite index would also permit comparative analyses on aspects such as the democratic control that different political systems exercise over their national intelligence communities as well as offering concrete guidance for transnational action. UK will lead this second topic
  3. We will analyse the transnational relations, networks and connections between intelligence agencies and the possibility for oversight bodies to follow them or not. This analysis is central to our purpose because it is intended to reveal the gaps between intelligence services’ transnational practices in certain cases and the capacity for proper democratic oversight, which would need to be on the same scale as the level of intelligence activity for the particular case under inquiry. GUARDINT will investigate previous and present cases of intense cooperation between intelligence services in order to better comprehend and digitally portray gaps in the oversight of these agencies in contemporary Europe and the transatlantic realm. Because democratic mechanisms for oversight have remained largely national, we propose rethinking the possibilities for national oversight bodies to become interconnected and transnationally linked as new positive sites of democratic development. France will lead this third topic
  4. Based on the previous experience and ongoing collaborations with coordinators of the European Public Data Lab (a forward-looking initiative involving data-scientists and designers, focused on developing cutting-edge data research that foster democratic engagement), we will develop a digital visualisation of the trajectories of information into transnational networks of data sharing. The visual map will identify the areas of secrecy in the relations between the actors, and the occasions wherein investigations by coordinated oversight bodies would need to apply, e.g. when secrecy is abused, as it would the case when the third-party rule in intelligence sharing is used to escape responsibility for gross violations of human rights (Marty 2011). The three teams will collaborate to conceptualize together this visual map
  5. We will develop all together an International Political Sociology (IPS) approach to oversight and conceptualise its role in democratic regimes. Studies on intelligence oversight have so far either lacked a theoretical foundation or these foundations have been confined within disciplinary boundaries. International Political Sociology (IPS) uses a transdisciplinary approach to the transnational practices of different oversight actors who contest or enact controls

Overall, GUARDINT will be crucial to assessing the limits that democracy imposes on transnational collaboration between intelligence services in a digital age, both in terms of distinction to other regimes and its ability to provide effective tools of oversight that do not paralyse the functioning of these services. As recent and ongoing discussions on surveillance reform and intelligence oversight in many European countries demonstrate, there is a genuine desire for more robust mechanisms of supervision. GUARDINT is designed and able to provide quality information and conceptual tools which improve the necessary knowledge transfer and capacity building across Europe. We see our project as a vital step to further institutionalising intelligence oversight as an academic research area, including the generation of theoretical discourse on the topic and to discuss what a democratic regime may or may not at any given time. This entails studying the historical trajectories and scrutinizing the sociological processes through which different oversight professionals enact limits on intelligence gathering, even in the face of advanced technological and social possibilities for reinforcing the power of intelligence agencies, as well as a reflection on the boundaries of liberal and illiberal practices of intelligence.

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