In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Intelligence Oversight

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Oversight from the Perspective of the CIA
  • Oversight and the Snowden Revelations
  • Oversight in Canada and Australia
  • Oversight in Great Britain
  • Oversight in Western Europe
  • Oversight in Former Communist States
  • Oversight in Africa
  • Oversight in Asia
  • Oversight in Latin America
  • Oversight in Israel
  • Oversight and the Media

International Relations Intelligence Oversight
Jeffrey Adams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0186


Oversight has the objective of ensuring accountability in the operations of a country’s security and intelligence organizations. Among established democracies, the United States has taken a clear lead by putting numerous legal safeguards in place, notably after the major congressional investigations of 1975. A wave of reform followed in other countries—initially in Australia and Canada and later extending to the United Kingdom, Denmark, Austria, Greece, Norway, and Italy. Emerging democracies such as South Africa and Romania initiated a similar process, while China, Japan, and the Russian Federation registered little if any change. A crucial debate confronts any representative government: preserving a protective cloak of secrecy in the interest of national security while maintaining outside scrutiny of an agency’s performance and pattern of conduct. Oversight can be exercised by either the executive or the legislative branch of the government, although most commonly one finds a mixture of the two. Occasionally the permanent courts will adjudicate espionage cases involving the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive classified information, just as more specialized bodies such as commissions, ombudsmen, and tribunals might be created and enter the picture. In some instances, the news media have proven to be critical instruments in shaping public opinion and exerting pressure on government officials; far more limited has been the impact of civil rights and other independent groups. The international repercussions of both the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the National Security Agency leaks by Edward Snowden in 2013 have given fresh impetus to proponents and critics alike. As more nations have sought to democratize their intelligence communities, intelligence oversight has attracted increased attention, becoming in the process a prominent element in the expanding academic discipline of intelligence studies. Still, no universal formula or model has yet emerged—and some form of compromise among the alternatives nearly always results. The robust debate over secrecy versus transparency thus appears guaranteed to continue into the foreseeable future.

General Overviews

Three of these works on oversight—Hillebrand 2014, Lowenthal 2015, and Krieger 2004—appear in larger texts on intelligence but are particularly helpful as a starting point. A reader can also see more explicitly how the topic relates to other key components and issues in the field of intelligence. Since it is difficult to recommend one of them above the others, they are probably best read in conjunction with one another. The US experience is carefully surveyed by Johnson 2018.

  • Hillebrand, Claudia. “Intelligence Oversight and Accountability.” In Routledge Companion to Intelligence Studies. Edited by Robert Dover, Michael S. Goodman, and Claudia Hillebrand, 305–312. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2014.

    Hillebrand’s introduction to the subject possesses the advantage of an international frame of reference including the related issue of cross-border intelligence cooperation.

  • Johnson, Loch K. Spy Watching: Intelligence Accountability in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    A recognized authority traces the evolution of accountability from the early Cold War to the advent of the Trump administration and discusses the need for further reforms in light of a dangerous and uncertain world.

  • Krieger, Wolfgang. “Oversight of Intelligence: A Comparative Approach.” In National Intelligence Systems: Current Research and Future Prospects. Edited by Gregory Treverton and Wilhelm Agrell, 210–234. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Krieger demonstrates how the political culture of a country—whether France, Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, or the United States—is a critical factor in shaping attitudes toward the democratic control of intelligence.

  • Lowenthal, Mark M. “Oversight and Accountability.” In Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy. 6th ed. By Mark M. Lowenthal, 277–322. Los Angeles: CQ, 2015.

    Concentrating exclusively on the United States, this longer chapter contains an up-to-date breakdown and description of the multiple government bodies involved in oversight.

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