Featured Image: available here

By Anthi Pantazi, member of the Social and Humanitarian Issues Research Group


The existence of Intelligence Services dates back to the Ancient years, when every city or state would have its own informants to protect and defend itself in case of a battle, or to check the opponent’s ability to resist and fight in case of an attack (Konstantopoulos, 2013). In contemporary terms, it can be seen as the means through which states try to ensure their national security and avoid possible strategic surprises, while their supreme goal is to defend and protect their citizens. This competence is usually assumed by an institution that functions in most of the contemporary states: Intelligence Services. These Services conduct four main activities (Konstantopoulos & Liaropoulos, 2014): a) collect information, b) analyze information c) counterintelligence-where one state is trying to protect its information and defend itself by espionage- and d) covert action. The first three do not form a threat to democracy and human rights, but coverting action may involve some very questionable or even immoral activities, such as assassinations of foreign politicians, organizing or supporting coups, or funding the most favorable government in another country towards them.

The primary goal of these Services is to eliminate any external threats that may be posed by another state and secure their national interests. Through this analysis, there will be featured the terms of secrecy and effectiveness of Intelligence Services and their contradiction to transparency and accountability, but also the reasons for the necessity of their existence within a democratic country. Having defined these aspects, it will be analyzed how these Services can fit within democracies and who will be in charge of ensuring the maintenance of their effectiveness.

1. The Theoretical Discussion 

The importance of Intelligence Services can be summarized by the well-known phrase “knowledge is power”. In an anarchic international system, where there is no government above the states to coordinate and control their actions, the protection and security of the state are under its own control (Maziar & Wood, 2009). Securing one’s interests requires knowing what you are defending it from and what you are fighting against. The difficulty in this case, though, is what these actions that we extract information from or protect our  interests involve and how convergent they are with International Law and democracy.

With the Treaty of Vienna in 1815 and the creation of the Westphalian state, the non-intervention clause was also signed, which makes it illegal for one state to intervene in the internal affairs and decisions of another state (Maziar & Wood, 2009). Covert action, in most of its activities, actually violates this law, as it aims to influence the policy or the attitude of another country in favor of the one the Services are working for, while concealing the identity of the source that planned and executed these actions (Stempel, 2007). These actions, in order to be effective, demand an amount of secrecy that, within a democracy, is questionable if given, and if so, it is mandatory to audit the activities and missions they execute to ensure transparency and legality. Lack of accountability is the main factor that contributes to these Services not functioning within a democratic frame.  

The claim that seems to be acceptable by some academics, which justifies the practice of covert action, is that sometimes, when there is a conflict of interests between two or more states, it is the middle way solution or the “quiet option” among layoff, diplomacy and the use of military force. If using the former, will probably be inadequate to protect the state’s vital interests, and the latter will possibly provoke moral dilemmas, or even a war. But, theoretically, activities with moral or legal question marks have no place in a democratic country. What has been described as covert action appears to be more of a not-so-moral compromise by democracies, in order to confront the lack of trust in the intentions of others’ behavior within the anarchical international system. Some scholars claim that covert action is the means through which democracies can fight each other by “shadow wars”, in order to avoid dilemmas and questions about the legality or the necessity for an open war (Konstantopoulos, 2013).

The academic discussion about whether these actions can fit in democratic environments is quite long, but it can be summarized in the main four schools of International Relation theories that correlate the way Intelligent Services should act within a democratic state (Shelton, 2011): The first one is “Realism”, which identifies the state as the main actor in the anarchic international system and claims that it should act according to its  national interests. Realism is subdivided into two other categories: the amoral and the Realpolitik. In the former, it is believed that ethics is irrelevant to International Relations and the practicing of Foreign Policy, while in the latter it is claimed that what is in the survival interests of the state can not be unethical and that defending your country is a moral duty. The second school is the “consequentialist” or “utilitarian”, which judges the actions based on their result and what matters is the maximization of the good for the biggest number of people. For Consequentionalists, actions that are moral lead to a beneficial situation for humanity, regardless of nationality. The third school is based on the “Theory of Just War» and is called “Just Intelligence”. It emphasizes more on the cause that requires a certain action to take place and on the proportionality that should be preserved during that action. Therefore, the reason for such operations must be mainly defending and, if violence is needed to be used, it should not exceed the required amount. Last but not least, the fourth school is called “deontological” and is based on Kant’s absolute philosophy that can not justify anything that is originally unethical, no matter what its results may be. For instance, if there is a terrorist under arrest and there is proof that they have planned attacks against your country, even then the state is not allowed to behave violently against the terrorist even if the information that could be extracted could save thousands of lives. This is the main conversation about the relation between Intelligence Services- and, especially, their department of covert action- with democracy and ethics.

2. Oversight and Conservation of Democracy 

Intelligence Services were created to protect and defend the citizen’s interests and as a result, they should be accountable to them (Shelton, 2011). Some Realists support the autonomy of Intelligent Services, on the ground that they have to do what it takes to be effective and therefore not check the moral or democratic character of their actions (Konstantopoulos, 2017). The critics of this debate seem to prevail in it, as they showcase the possibility for abuse of authority that could be against even the citizens themselves. In a democratic society, it is unquestionable that every institution should keep its activities transparent and be able to be accountable to those in charge of checking them at any time. After all, those who govern are accountable to the governed, and the way to ensure that is transparency. Intelligent Services, though, need to act under a certain amount of secrecy in order to be effective, which comes in contrast with what democracy demands (Κυριαζής & Οικονόμου, 2018).

There is no special solution to this oxymoron, but there are ways within which a democratic state can act to control the possible abuse of authority, or any violations against the citizens’ rights that these Services may proceed to with their only goal being effective. In more mature democracies, the procedure of oversight has been more developed than in democracies that are still not consolidated. As oversight is defined, the “means through which public accountability is ensured for the decisions and actions of Intelligence Services and close research for assuring the effectiveness and the legality on behalf of the state”.

There are many kinds of oversight that could be effective: internal oversight by the direction of Intelligence Services, oversight by the executive branch, judicial oversight, external oversight by media and society, oversight by International Organizations and NGOs such as the European Court of Human Rights or International Amnesty, and, the most important, parliamentary oversight (Κυριαζής & Οικονόμου, 2018). It is through Parliament that the greatest control and transparency of these Services can be achieved, as Parliament is the one that sets the legislative and judicial framework within which Intelligence Services act, and it is its responsibility to update that framework and make it more convergent towards democracy. One of its competencies is defining the budget and auditing the results of the Services, which makes the Parliament able to check where this money that citizens pay for goes and whether it is misused. Another reason that producing results is important, is that this information is essential for politicians to make decisions, especially concerning the defense and security field. Additionally, the choice of the Director of Intelligence Services has to be approved by the Parliament, which gives another advantage to democratic procedures, as it will be assured that that person will have certain experience in the field and will be of an ethical level, as much as that can be judged. Finally, the establishment of an autonomous parliamentary committee, which will be able to host some hearings for the employees and experts working in the Services, asking details about their activities and also having access to classified documents, under the condition of course that the demanded secrecy must be preserved, is another tool which can be used (Matei & Bruneau, 2011). Such measures may sound difficult to be achieved, given the particular temperament of the Intelligence Services, but within a consolidated democracy, it is more than possible.


After having established the benefits that Intelligence Services provide to a country, through the information that is transmitted for the state to defend its citizens and avoid any unpleasant surprises, it is obvious that the importance of their existence is unquestionable, especially in an anarchic system, in which each state acts according to its interests. As it has been quoted, after all, “if men were angels, or if angels were to govern men, intelligence agencies would not be necessary and would be abolished”. The real dilemma is how should democracies cope with the secrecy needed for the Intelligent Services to be effective, without risking an abuse of authority by them, since they do have a comparative advantage that they could use to cover non-democratic procedures. The answer to this seems to be a democratic framework that controls these Services, mainly through oversight and especially parliamentary oversight. This procedure is not a panacea, but the best solution for democracy for its struggle to create a balance between what seems to be contrasting and also necessary for national security. It is a political duty to form a strong, autonomous, and effective framework for oversight, in order to sustain the democratic procedures and the legality of the actions, while at the same time it will not block the productiveness of the Intelligence Services.

Κυριαζής, Ν. Κ. & Οικονόμου, E. M. (2018). Κείμενα στην Οικονομική της Άμυνας και της Ασφάλειας.  Πανεπιστημιακές Εκδόσεις Θεσσαλίας.

Bruneau, T. C. & Boraz, S. C. (Eds.) (2007). Reforming Intelligence Obstacles to Democratic Control and Effectiveness. The University of Texas Press. Retrieved from here.

Konstantopoulos, I. L. & Liaropoulos A. N. (2014). Reforming the Greek National Intelligence Service: Untying the Gordian Knot. Journal of Mediterranean and Balkan Intelligence, 3(1), 5-18. Retrieved from here

Konstantopoulos, I. L. (2013). Intelligence and IR Theory: The Cases of Covert Action and Economic Espionage. International Conference on International Business Proceedings (17-19 May 2012). Retrieved from here 

Konstantopoulos, I. L. (2017). Democracy and Ethics vs. Intelligence and Security: From WikiLeaks to Snowden. In Bitros, C. & Kyriazis, N. C. (Eds.). Democracy and an Open-Economy World Order (pp. 3-23). Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from here

Matei, F. C. & Bruneau, T. (2011). Intelligence reform in new democracies: factors supporting or arresting progress. Democratization, 18(3), 602-630. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2011.586257.

Maziar, J. & Wood, M. (2009). The Principle of Non-intervention. Leiden Journal of International Law 22(2), 345-381. DOI: 10.1017/S0922156509005858.

Shelton, A. M. (2011). Framing the Oxymoron: A New Paradigm for Intelligence Ethics. Intelligence and National Security Journal, 26(1), 23-45. DOI: 10.1080/02684527.2011.556358.

Stempel, J. D. (2007). Covert Action and Diplomacy. International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 20(1), 122-135. DOI: 10.1080/08850600600829924.


H SAFIA (Student Association For International Affairs) δεν υιοθετεί ως Οργανισμός πολιτικές θέσεις. Οι απόψεις που δημοσιεύονται στο The SAFIA Blog αποδίδονται αποκλειστικά στους συγγραφείς και δεν αντιπροσωπεύουν απαραίτητα τις απόψεις του Σωματείου, του Διοικητικού Συμβουλίου ή των κατά περίπτωση και καθ’ οιονδήποτε τρόπο συνεργαζόμενων φορέων.