Discussion Prompt: Is productive engagement on intelligence law, policy and oversight possible between the secret and civilian world and what can be gained from it? Reflections on best practice, lessons learned, and plans for the future. 

See all contributions to this question.

The key role of oversight bodies is to ensure that intelligence services act in defence, not in contradiction, of democracy. To that end, the Norwegian EOS Committee sees itself as an intermediary between the secret world and the public, building trust through transparency and open dialogue. 

Some see the intelligence services as an enemy of democracy. In certain regimes, that has certainly been the case. I would argue, however, that ideally intelligence services should be one of the most important guardians of democracy. And in order to be seen as guardians of democracy, the services depend on the public’s trust.

Oversight bodies should not be fierce opponents of the services but rather make sure that the intelligence services actually act as guardians of democracy. Oversight bodies, therefore, have a duty to ensure that the intelligence services’ surveillance activities are limited to what is strictly necessary in a democratic society.

Most people have little clue of how intelligence services operate, let alone of how oversight bodies review their activities. Without that understanding, the general public might easily overstate the powers of intelligence services and the extent of their surveillance measures. Trust can only be built if there is some degree of transparency about the intelligence services’ work.

Scrutiny & trust

For that trust to take hold, there has to be an oversight body that has access to all the information the services possess. And it is quite essential that the law permits the oversight bodies to publish unclassified reports, including criticism of the services’ activities when that is deserved. Only then can there be room for a public debate on intelligence that is based on facts.

This is what we strive for in Norway. The Norwegian oversight body, the EOS Committee, was established in 1996. After years of allegations about illegal political surveillance by the Norwegian secret services, some of which were proven right, the Storting (the Norwegian parliament) decided to set up an independent, external committee to oversee the Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS), the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST), the Norwegian National Security Authority (NSM), and the Defence Security Department (FSA), collectively known as the “EOS services” in Norway. The Committee was the first truly independent oversight body that looked into the work of the PST. 1996 also marked the first time that the foreign intelligence service NIS was under any kind of external oversight regime. This decision actually came before the Lund report was released. This report showed in detail that the PST’s predecessor had engaged in a range of illegal operations, especially with regard to surveillance of left-wing politicians and activists.

The EOS Committee is a so-called hybrid body. It is appointed by the Storting and consists of both experts and former politicians. The law states that one cannot be a member of the Committee and the Storting at the same time. In the beginning, the Committee had only a tiny secretariat, but it expanded over the years and in 2020 it will consist of 16 members, many of which have considerable legal and technological expertise. The Norwegian oversight law states that the Committee may demand access to all of the services’ archives and registers, premises, installations, and facilities. This is also important to tell the public when it comes to building trust.

This trust has to be understood in the sense that the public trusts that the oversight bodies are doing a good job, so that in turn the intelligence services can be trusted with keeping the country and democracy safe. Of course, the oversight bodies themselves cannot ‘trust’ the intelligence services if they say this or that ‘is just fine’ and there is nothing to worry about. We have to go in to the services’ systems ourselves and ask the right people the right questions to make sure that relevant laws and regulations are being followed, and that civil rights are not being violated. Certainly, when a body that is independent of the services, as the EOS Committee is, has the ability to look into any file and demand an explanation of any employee, like the EOS Committee does, it reduces the services’ ability to break the law without being discovered.

Our priorities

In recent years, the EOS Committee has made a priority of interacting more with civil society and facilitating a better and more transparent debate about secret services and their oversight.

The Committee’s annual reports have been public since the beginning. The last few years, the Committee has put extra work into making the reports more accessible by simplifying their language and improving their design. Since 2017 the Committee has also hosted an annual conference in Oslo on intelligence, security and oversight topics. The conference is open for anyone that wants to participate, and gathers a mix of intelligence professionals, politicians, academics, legal experts, journalists, and citizens. Inviting Norwegian and foreign experts for meetings is another thing the Committee has prioritised more over the last years. Within the Committee’s capacity and mandate, it also seeks to prioritise any media enquiries, speaking requests, and opportunities to participate in meetings and research. For instance, the Committee chair has held several lectures on the Committee’s work, we have been accommodating students’ requests for help with their Master’s and doctoral theses, and last year we invited journalists to our office to frankly discuss our work. The hiring of a communications adviser has also made it possible to have one person in the secretariat, for whom outreach is a constant priority.

Civil society is keen

Maybe I should not be too surprised, but even after two years as communications adviser to the Committee, I am still impressed by how ‘easy’ it is to get interesting people with busy schedules — ministers and other high-ranking politicians and experts from Norway and abroad — to meet up with the Committee to discuss oversight issues and participate at our conferences.

I take it as a good sign that civil society is very interested in engaging with our ‘secret’ world in meetings, conferences, and so on. It allows the Committee to receive expertise and viewpoints from outside the ring of secrecy, which proves very useful in the oversight of the services. The services accept that as part of our work; at least, to my knowledge, the Committee has received no complaints from the services regarding civil society engagement.

Transparency on the rise

The Norwegian services operate with varying degrees of transparency. The NIS has historically been the most secretive. A proposal for a new intelligence law, however, which was released for public consultation last year, changed that quite a bit. Today’s law primarily states what the tasks of the service are, and not how the NIS can or cannot perform them. The proposed law, on the other hand, contains detailed rules on what methods the service would be allowed to deploy. As these methods were spelled out in the proposal, they became de facto declassified. (Noteworthy: the proposed bill would allow the NIS to intercept foreign communication on cables crossing Norwegian borders). It will probably be debated and decided on by the Norwegian Parliament in 2020.

In an effort to increase transparency, the NIS itself began publishing annual unclassified assessments of security challenges. The PST’s public threat assessment reports have also become increasingly extensive and detailed over the past few years. This makes it easier for the EOS Committee to both inform the public of its oversight practice and to discuss unclassified oversight issues with the civilian world. Nevertheless, there will always be a limit to how transparent intelligence services can be, leaving oversight bodies to function as a bridge between the secret and the ‘not-secret’ world. For the Committee, the desired outcome of performing this role is that our intelligence agencies guard our country and our democracy in equal measure and that the public trusts in intelligence oversight.