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CIA Deputy Says Oversight of Intelligence Service Prevents Repression

  • Roland Eggleston

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, July 24 (RFE/RL) -- Effective parliamentary oversight is the only way to ensure that intelligence services respect democratic values and do not become a tool of repression, says George Tenet, deputy director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

"Espionage is not incompatible with democracy," Tenet told 70 parliamentarians from the former Soviet Union and Central Europe attending a seminar in Germany.

"But the only intelligence service worth having is the kind which defends democracy. If for some reason it is not doing so, parliamentarians have the responsibility to see that it changes."

Many countries, including those represented at this seminar arranged by the U.S. Defense Department at the Marshall Center for European Security Studies, are establishing legislative oversight of their intelligence and security services.

"They are correct in believing this to be an essential element of a democratic state. They are also correct in thinking it is a means of preventing a return to the repressive practices of the past," said Tenet.

One of the main benefits of parliamentary control of the intelligence services is that "it increases confidence that the security services are not being used to undermine the policies of democratically-elected leaders" or to abuse individual citizens.


The parliamentarians asked Tenet how the U.S. system operates and about relations between the CIA and the oversight bodies. Were they friendly or did hostility exist between the intelligence services and those appointed to check on their activities?

Some parliamentarians expressed doubts about whether it was possible for parliamentarians to maintain a genuine oversight on operations which in most cases are necessarily secret.

Tenet explained the structure of the U.S. oversight system before addressing some of these concerns.

Several organizations are responsible for overseeing intelligence activities. One is the Presidents' Foreign Intelligence Board, which reports only to the President.

"The President's Foreign Intelligence Board is made up of prominent Americans who are not currently employed in the Government, although some had previously been members of Congress. Its job is to advise the President on how our intelligence community can improve its performance in many critical areas. This task is carried out in secrecy. It never convenes in public and it never issues public reports," said Tenet.

The two houses of Congress each have their own committees. The congressional oversight committees include members of both the Democratic and the Republican parties. It is essential the oversight bodies include both supporters of the government and the opposition.

The President's board and the congressional committees are independent of the CIA and sometimes look at things differently, said Tenet. He acknowledged that this independence has led to occasional tensions with the Director of the CIA. Tenet told the parliamentarians they must expect similar tensions between their intelligence services and the parliamentary oversight boards.

"It will take your intelligence agencies time to adjust to a world in which they are accountable to the elected representatives of the people," he said.

Tenet disagrees with those who believe it is impossible for parliamentary committees to keep up with the activities of the intelligence services and exert responsible control over them.

"We spend hundreds of hours testifying and briefing members of Congress to ensure that we retain the faith and trust of the American people," he said.


The CIA is required by law to keep the U.S. Congress fully informed of the details of its most sensitive operations. The Congressional oversight committees might not know where an individual CIA agent is stationed, but they know the purpose and outlines of every operation. Tenet advised that the oversight bodies in the new democracies in Europe be similarly well-informed and follow rules similar to those used in the United States.

The first and most important rule is secrecy.

"Parliamentarians appointed to an oversight board must be able to keep their mouths closed. Your intelligence services may not agree with the views of the parliamentary oversight body but they must be able to trust it to protect sensitive information," he said.

"The intelligence services must trust you to perform the most unnatural act imaginable for a politician--avoiding the press and passing up opportunities to seek publicity for yourself or your colleagues in disclosing your role in overseeing specific and sensitive intelligence operations."

The second rule is to avoid partisan politics when overseeing intelligence activity. Tenet acknowledged that representatives of opposition parties might be tempted to use what they heard in the oversight committee against the government, but this temptation had to be resisted.

This statement provoked questions about the difficulties of maintaining secrecy when the government was a coalition of many different parties, including some with rival interests. The United States has only two major parties, but in some countries many are represented in parliament.

Tenet said strict rules must be enforced to punish those who break the oath of secrecy. Any member of a U.S. oversight board who breaks the secrecy rule is expelled from the board.

It's important that members of oversight bodies know the details of the intelligence agency's budget and how the money is spent, and that it provide adequate financing for intelligence activities to pay for modern technology, agents' salaries, training and, above all, for recruiting high-quality staff.

Separating the internal and foreign intelligence services is crucial, said Tenet. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is a distinct and separate organization from the CIA. The two services should have different chiefs and different standards of accountability which should be laid down in law.

"The foreign intelligence-gathering organization should have no power to enforce domestic laws," he said. "It should have no power of arrest or surveillance over citizens."

Answering questions from a Bulgarian parliamentarian, Tenet said that internal and external services needed to co-operate on some problems, such as terrorism.

"This is something which cannot be compartmentalized as either domestic or international," he said. "A crime committed inside the country may well have been planned outside."

A democratic country should establish clear legal guidelines for intelligence operations, either at home or in other countries. In the United States, a domestic intelligence agency could not decide on its own to tap the telephone of a suspected criminal or terrorist. The agency concerned must obtain the advance approval of a judge who must be convinced that it is necessary.

"It is your responsibility as lawmakers to pass unambiguous laws which govern the conduct of intelligence," said Tenet.