Home EJIL A Comment on Simon Chesterman on the Privatization of Intelligence

A Comment on Simon Chesterman on the Privatization of Intelligence

Published on January 25, 2009        Author: 

Prof. Chesterman’s article does an excellent job in exposing and explaining the phenomenon of the privatization of intelligence in recent years, particularly in the United States. To someone who, like myself, has followed the PMSCs debate only on the margins, the information that 70% of the US intelligence budget is spent on private contractors came as somewhat of a shock.  Chesterman explains very well the accountability and oversight gaps caused by the outsourcing of both intelligence collection and intelligence analysis. Especially troubling, of course, are situations where individuals’ life and liberty are put at the disposal of private contractors, as for example during interrogations or renditions.

Chesterman also explains well the specific problems that the outsourcing of intelligence, as opposed to PMSCs generally, poses for accountability. These are its inherent secrecy, the (perverse) incentives caused by the insertion of a profit motive into intelligence activites, and the difficulty of establishing which intelligence functions qualify as ‘inherently governmental’, and thus not outsourcable. (Not to mention the sheer callousness of some people working in the field, who can come up with a slogan as frivolous as is ‘We Can’t Spy… If We Can’t Buy’, in a Powerpoint presentation no less, that is featured in the title of the article.)

The article of course focuses on the United States, which both wields an enormous intelligence apparatus and where the privatization of intelligence is most pervasive. A question that I would have liked answered is to what extent is the phenomenon of privatization of intelligence (still) confined to the United States, and explained by its own idiosyncrasies. Do we have, for example, have any comparable data on the United Kingdom?

This brings me to my only really substantive comment – at the time being at least, what does international law, as opposed to domestic US law for example, have to say on the privatization of intelligence? I understand that Chesterman did not want to rehearse arguments on, say, state responsibility and PMSCs – in that regard, Chesterman’s and Carsten Hoppe‘s articles complement each other nicely. I would still have liked to see some discussion on what, if anything, international law has to contribute to managing the problems posed by the privatization of intelligence, particularly those of its aspects which do not necessarily apply to PMSCs generally.

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