Secret Services
Autonomy or control? The debate on intelligence services

Impartiality, professionalism and democratisation, essential qualities for secret services
© Pixabay

Modern societies have assumed that the existence of intelligence services is an unavoidable necessity to protect the democratic system and its citizens. Citizens need to know that they are defended against internal and external threats to their way of life.

By definition, the job of intelligence services is to work for the state, collaborating with the executive to ensure the security necessary to defend our rights and freedoms. To do so, they must be impartial and professional, they must be democratised, and they must be able to defend the nation effectively, regardless of changes of government.

As Konstantin Kuhle, MEP, and Vice-President of the Liberal Group in the Bundestag, emphasised at a recent meeting organised by the Foro Libertas, Veritas et Legalitas (LVL) and the Madrid office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, "our democracies have a mission to protect fundamental freedoms and human rights, and intelligence services do important work in this respect". However, the Bundestag member also called for a balance to be struck between the needs of the intelligence services and the protection of our freedoms.

Indeed, the question of how much control these intelligence services should have within democratic societies is at the heart of the debate. This is a particularly controversial issue, since we are talking about organisations whose activities are characterised by extreme discretion and secrecy, which is essential for their proper functioning.

It is a fact that public opinion is only aware of some of the activities of these services when errors have occurred that have allowed the media to alert the public, as has happened in Spain with the "Pegasus case" -a case of mass spying on public figures-.

These errors in the only activities of the intelligence services that have been brought to the public's attention have led to a negative perception of the intelligence services and how they operate. Of course, hidden beneath the surface is the enormous and quiet work these agencies do in preventing potential threats to our freedom, security, and way of life.


Konstantin Kuhle, MdB, and Vice-President of the Liberal Group in the Bundestag

© FNF Madrid

Intelligence experts such as Konstantin Kuhle himself believe that, from a liberal point of view, it would be desirable to have an open debate on the control of the intelligence services, without the need for there to have been an error or dysfunction in the system.

The question would be: could increasing parliamentary and judicial controls over the activity of intelligence services be detrimental to the effectiveness of their work, or would providing them with excessive autonomy of action constitute a threat to the functioning of democratic societies?

The aforementioned forum provided some answers to this dilemma. From his own experience, Fernando Pinto, a former agent of the Centro Superior de Información de la Defensa (CESID), argued in favour of a consensus solution: "The key is that the public has to know what these intelligence services do and what they are for; and, for their part, the intelligence services have to lose their fear of being controlled".

One of the keys to making this control work is to guarantee the independence of these services from the government. The close relationship that should exist between the two - in Spain's case, it is the executive that defines the objectives and receives information from the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) - should not be perverted so that the intelligence services end up serving the interests of the government of the day.

According to this ideal model, changes of government should not lead to changes in the structure or leadership of the intelligence services, nor should the director of the intelligence services become a politically appointed position of trust. In Spain, this model has worked for many years: Félix Sanz Roldán was director of the CNI between 2009 and 2019, with two governments of different political orientation.

In addition to their close relationship with the executive, the intelligence services are also subject to parliamentary control, which has different models in different countries, depending on their form of government. Despite these differences, it is common for there to be a parliamentary committee before which the director of the national intelligence service appears periodically to explain his activities.

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The problem with these committees is that the parliamentary representation obtained in elections by some extremist and populist parties guarantees their presence in these committees. This has raised doubts about the appropriateness of these committees revealing secrets that could then be irresponsibly disseminated by some of their members, as has already happened in Spain. However, this is a risk that must be assumed in a democratic society, and one can only appeal to the responsibility and sense of state of those who hold political office.

Finally, it is important to refer to a concept that, in principle, would seem to be alien to the intelligence services: communication. Part of the mistrust that their actions generate in public opinion is due, as we have seen above, to the lack of information about their activities and to the fact that, when the media deal with the intelligence services, it is because something has gone wrong.

This mistrust would be restored by some communication work that would allow the positive work they do in defence of rights and freedoms to be known as far as it is possible to do so. Surely this is another issue that requires careful balancing so as not to interfere with their activities.

It should be borne in mind that, for example, the German Federal Office for Constitutional Protection (BfV) is tasked with informing and alerting citizens to potential threats to German security, democracy, and law. In fact, it issues an annual report highlighting these issues for public knowledge.

In conclusion, the work of these intelligence services is essential to protect our rights and freedoms, although, like any other activity, there is room for improvement. Our survival depends on them and their "infinite capacity for suspicion" (John Le Carré).