The "On Violence" blogging team has recently been aiming at the principal-agent problem of intelligence agency bureaucracies: They can basically do what they want and then lie to you because what they really do is a secret until someone turns into a whistleblower or something else goes wrong grossly. Likewise, they can claim unspecified successes without providing falsifiability.
The CIA's Bernie Madoff Problem
related: 2013-08 Niskanen's bureaucrats
The problem is very widespread, and also applies to regular bureaucracies. Even regular bureaucracies in countries with not too watered-down freedom of information acts can still maintain an information gap between insiders and outsiders which plays about the same role as the official secrecy for intelligence agencies: It shields them from effective oversight.
Parliaments are traditionally charged with oversight, but their majority usually supports the head of government (though not in all constitutions) or members of parliament are members of parties under whose rule bad practices were begun (see the current difficulties of the German SPD to criticise the currently ruling coalition for what was begun while it was member of a ruling coalition itself). Members of parliament are furthermore very busy and cannot devote much time for overseeing an intelligence service. The top bureaucrats can invest more time into fooling the members of parliament than they can invest into digging up failures. Current parliamentary oversight regimes include briefings and hearings for the oversight committee, and committee members may be unable to disclose scandals they learn about because the scandal is still classified.
He knew they did it because of briefings, that's why he asked the question.
He knew the answer was a lie, but he was legally bound to still shut up.
This kind of oversight regime is a joke.
This kind of oversight regime is a joke.
The parliamentary oversight over intelligence agencies is clearly unsatisfactory.
How could it be done better (if effective, lawful governance was the objective)?
You need to strip the bureaucrats naked, take away their ability to hide undesirable activities without impairing their ability to do their actual job.
I suppose the only effective cure is to have a trustworthy mole.
We need a people's tribune* kind of guy who has total access to everything, including the right to follow anyone in such an agency into any meeting and read all his/her correspondence. Someone from whom such an agency cannot hide anything. To establish such privileges is the first challenge.
The second challenge would be to make and keep this someone loyal to the people, not to the bureaucracy. This takes a special kind of person, and said person should neither be a former bureaucrat nor politically aligned with the a party which rules or ruled in the last about 20 years (a concern for countries with true multi-party systems). You need someone with a very consistent, predictable, strong character and enough smarts and diligence. Direct election for this office would be preferable.
The third challenge would be that this someone needs to be authorised to declassify anything if it
- justifies a suspicion of it being illegal
- justifies a suspicion of it being grossly wasteful
- is contrary to public statements of the bureaucracy or its contractors
- is contrary to public statements of the current or earlier administrationsThis declassification would have a one-month waiting period, so the intelligence bureaucrats could provide for the safety of their sources. The people's tribune could nevertheless immediately announce that something is going to be declassified on a specific topic at a specific date, so the public discussion could wait with a conclusion for the declassified info.
The voters can be trusted to elect trustworthy persons for this office. Trustworthy persons who do not do more harm than good (which critics of the idea would inevitably claim).
(You may disagree on that, but I have an opinion about people who systematically** distrust the electorate to choose wisely and prefer for this reason a less direct democratic process: They're hostile to democracy's very foundation and thus dangerous. Well, that's my opinion.)
I think we should look into this people's tribune model for oversight over all government activities.
*: Roman plebeian tribunes were outsiders to the patricians-run government, but empowered and tasked to represent the plebeians' interests in face of the principal-agent problems which were rampant in the Roman Republic.
**: As opposed to acknowledge anecdotal evidence of exceptions. The fallibility of crowds is self-evident. A preference for an authoritarian (not democratically legitimated) approach is what I reject. A 'tribune' appointed by parliament would too often be unsatisfactory because the person would too often be in camp with the administration.
edit: related http://boingboing.net/2013/09/04/tsa-is-officially-allowed-to-l.html