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2 April, 2021
Parliamentary oversight of intelligence services: why and how it should be strengthened
Roman Kostenko
MP, Secretary of the Committee on National Security, Defence, and Intelligence, Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine

Reform of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) is one of the most pressing topics these days. It is one of the critical issues for Ukraine’s national security, but reform has been delayed for many years.

Before being elected, every political force said that the SSU needed to be cleared of corruption, abuse, and non-relevant functions. Everyone understands that it is necessary to strengthen the counterintelligence component, optimize resources, and increase the professionalism of special services employees. However, after coming to power, no president has wanted to change the SSU, as the agency was often seen as a convenient tool to put pressure on political and economic opponents.

This is where Norway’s experience can be helpful for Ukraine. Mikael Thatchner, First Deputy of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence of the Norwegian Parliament, shared Norway’s experience during the Week of Parliamentary Oversight of the Security and Defence Sector organized by the Independent Defence Anti-Corruption Committee. Even the country that ranks first in the Democracy Index 2020 had to strengthen parliamentary control over the secret services, because it was not effective enough. A couple of years ago, there was a big scandal in Norway caused by illegal surveillance of citizens. Following the scandal, the country’s legislation has been significantly improved to strengthen the role of the Norwegian Parliament in overseeing the security services. Now the service reports to Parliament even more often and provides even more details in its reports than before.

The draft law adopted in the first reading at the end of January 2021 stipulates that the head of the SSU has to report to Members of Parliament (MPs) on a quarterly basis. So far, neither this norm nor many others are being met.

In Ukraine, the head of the SSU is obliged to report to the Parliament only once a year, and the report is usually quite technical. The situation could be changed by Draft Law #3196-d, which is supposed to launch reform of the secret service. It contains more than 100 pages and amends 35 existing laws that, in particular, regulate certain national security aspects, including parliamentary oversight of the Security Service.

As stipulated by the reform, the SSU should be deprived of its investigative functions, or at least be limited to investigating only cases related to terrorism and encroachment on national security. According to anti-corruption experts, many violations occur during investigations by the service of economic and corruption offenses. The scandalous departments responsible for fighting corruption and economic crimes must be disbanded in order for the SSU to finally become a classic secret service.

Although President Volodymyr Zelensky has already approved establishing the Bureau of Economic Security, this is not a guarantee that the SSU will no longer have the authority to investigate economic crimes. The Service continues to insist on retaining this function, so it is possible that although the Bureau will be created, these functions will remain veiled under the SSU.

NAKO’s video “The Urgent Reform: Strengthening parliamentary oversight of the security services”

At present, these changes, which were not easy for MPs, are only on paper. And the SSU has declared a need to finalize the draft law. For example, it does not support any waiver of pre-trial investigation, arguing that an allegedly lack of a professional pre-trial investigation body in Ukraine that could take over these functions. Therefore, it is difficult to predict when the Verkhovna Rada will reach the second reading of one of the most important documents for our state.

Another aspect where the Norwegian experience could be useful to Ukraine is a standing parliamentary committee to oversee intelligence services, which is a separate mechanism for parliamentary scrutiny. Its functions are significantly different from the parliamentary committee on national security, defence, and intelligence.

The Standing Committee essentially complements the work of the Norwegian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, which oversees defence and security issues. It monitors the work of the Police Security Service, the Defence Security Service, and the Military Intelligence Service; and investigates relevant complaints or, on its own initiative, investigates certain issues. The committee reports annually to Parliament.

The Standing Committee consists of seven members elected by Parliament for five years. Parliamentarians themselves are elected for a term of four years, i.e. the Standing Committee term lasts longer than Parliamentarians’ mandate of a particular convocation. Thus, there is continuity and transitional transfer of experience from one Committee composition to another.

This is a very good mechanism that Ukraine currently lacks. The committee’s main task should be in quality control and possibly coordination of special services. When I became a Member of Parliament, I was faced with the fact that it took me and most of my colleagues at least a year to understand the peculiarities of parliamentary control over the security and defence sector, in particular, over the secret services.

If Ukraine had a mechanism similar to the Norwegian one, the Standing Committee could quickly introduce the newly elected MPs to the details of the defence and security sector. Then this year of “in-depth acquaintance” with the sector would not be lost in terms of parliamentary control over the secret services and the Armed Forces.

At the same time, we should remember that in Norway the system works in one way, in the United States in a different way, and Ukraine needs its own way of controlling the security and defence sector. It can and should be developed based on our own experience and the best practices of other countries.