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A Response to Simon Chesterman “We Can’t Spy….If We Can’t Buy!”

Published on January 26, 2009        Author: 

Martin Trybus is Professor of European Law and Policy and Director of the Institute of European Law at the BirminghamLawSchool of the University of Birmingham, UK. He is the author of European Defence Procurement Law and European Union Law and Defence Integration and co-edited European Security Law with Nigel White

Chesterman (see here) deals with an interesting aspect of federal US American public procurement law. While touching on certain foreign relations dimensions of the topic, the thought-provoking article discusses domestic rather than international law. However, since the federal intelligence budget of the United States is most probably the largest in the world and privatisation in this area is unlikely to be more advanced in any other country, large parts of his analysis are relevant and important for the rest of the world. Other countries toying with the idea of privatisation of their intelligence services can learn from Washington’s experience accumulated during the last eight years.


The primary objective of public procurement is for the government to acquire whatever goods, works, and services it needs to operate from the private sector. This primary objective is certainly a legitimate motivation for the privatisation of some intelligence services when government agencies are lacking the personnel, know-how, and equipment to provide them. Nevertheless, as most concisely explained by Steve Schooner in “Desiderata: Objectives for a System of Government Contract Law”, (2002) 11 Public Procurement Law Review 99-102, there are a number of other important objectives to be served by public procurement. In any national context the procurement of defence and intelligence supplies and services has to operate within a triangle of three objectives: (1) national security, (2) value for money, and (3) democracy and the rule of law. National security is the objective of the defence and intelligence efforts of any country. Procurement policy and law must ensure that this basic objective is not compromised. The notion of ‘value for money’ requires the procurement process to ensure that the government purchases goods and services under the economically most advantageous terms, most notably at the lowest possible prices without compromising quality and other economic considerations. There is a connection between national security and value for money since the earlier is affected when the security budget is depleted through inefficient procurement and necessary services cannot be provided as a result. Democracy and the rule of law form the basis of a country such as the United States. Not even the national security objective can be allowed to compromise these most basic principles on which any democracy is built. A balance needs to be struck between the three corners of this triangle.


The most striking point highlighted in Chesterman’s article is that the privatisation of intelligence services in the United Sates appears to compromise all three objectives. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: EJIL, EJIL: Debate!
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