New report finds little oversight of surveillance, intelligence agencies in Latin America

News & Analysis
New report finds little oversight of surveillance, intelligence agencies in Latin America

Governments across Latin America are struggling to put in place effective intelligence and surveillance oversight regimes that guarantee the rights of citizens, according to a new report released by Privacy International's partner in Argentina, Asociación por los Derechos Civiles.

The report, "Who's watching the watchers? A comparative study of intelligence organisations oversight mechanisms", provides analysis of intelligence agency oversight frameworks in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. The author, Ramiro Ugarte, found that the agencies are operating with complete autonomy and are not subject to transparent and effective oversight, two key principles needed in democratic societies.

Read the report in English and Spanish

In many of the countries surveyed, memories of political repression are vivid; with intelligence agencies forming a part of the web of security forces tasked with oppression under the former authoritarian regimes. Two recent examples of intelligence agencies at the centre of scandalous power are discussed in the report: the DAS (Administrative Department of Security) scandal in Colombia, which exposed the illegal spying on judges, journalists, and activists in 2011 and the payment of bribes through SIN (National Intelligence Service) in Peru in 2000.

Many states have reformed their intelligence agencies as part of a transition towards democracy or a response to a scandal. The report explains how Argentina was the first Latin American country to establish external control of the Secretariat of Intelligence's activity in 1991. Prior to that all intelligence agencies across the region were answering to their Executive, the same institution that was directing intelligence operations. This created a recipe for abuse that was all too familiar in many citizens' lives in the region. 

The reforms may have delivered some gains, but the report found that across Latin America there are still struggles to create effective oversight regimes.

Argentina: Tough on paper, lost in practice

Argentina passed its National Intelligence Act in 2001. This Act created the Bicameral Committee for the Oversight of Intelligence Bodies and Activities, a committee made up of both houses of the Legislature. The committee began operating in 2004 with four sub-committee's feeding into the work of the main committee.

On paper, Argentina had set up a rigorous oversight regime, but in practice there have been many problems. According to the findings, Argentina has failed to provide any public oversight of their intelligence agencies by maintaing complete secrecy about the activities of the oversight committee. Further, one of the vital aspects of oversight -- review of classified documentation - is wholly dependent on an agency authorising the review of such documents, making any meaningful oversight subject to the will of the body being controlled.

Civil society in Argentina has been challenging this weak accountability regime. Repeated requests were made by ADC and the Latin American Institute for Security and Democracy (ILSED) for the most basic information regarding the committee such as the number of meetings held, reports produced, requests made to the Secretariat of Intelligence.

Yet none were answered. This lead ADC and ILSED to file a claim at the Supreme Court seeking to declare this complete silence unconstitutional.

Venezuela: All too familiar territory

Despite the existence of many intelligence agencies, Venezuela does not have any oversight mechanisms. A lack of effective oversight from the Executive or outside actors has exacerbated an already indistinct blending of intelligence functions and political-activity policing functions.

A serious problem arises out of this opacity. Put bluntly, no one knows what they do.

A Bill in 2000 was the most recent attempt to reform the Venezuelan system. This was vetoed by then-President Hugo Chávez, apparently due to the armed forces' objection to the advance of civilian oversight over intelligence activities. This stark resistance to change by the agencies themselves is an aspect familiar to campaigns for intelligence agency reform around the world.

More than the US and the UK

While intelligence reform efforts in the US and UK cast a long shadow, this report highlights distinct but similar problems faced elsewhere.

Transparency and effective oversight are critical, and lawmakers charged with holding agencies to account must have access to an agency's activities. Greater knowledge, by both legislators and civil society, of oversight regimes in other regions provides an opportunity to understand best practices.

The consequences of their failure to do so effectively are made clear throughout this report.

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