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Cynthia M. Nolan

Oversight of intelligence agencies maintains public control and knowledge of their activities through an assurance of accountability and responsible use of power. It reflects the essential part of democratic checks and balances as applied to intelligence and security services in government. The US intelligence community and its oversight offices are the most extensive, oldest, and most studied in the world. Here, oversight of intelligence had developed as a series of checks and balances against the often unchecked power that had revealed itself in a scandal of some sort. Meanwhile, early descriptions of the activities of the intelligence agencies have given way to more systematic examinations of the quality of intelligence. And as oversight has been formalized, so too have academic descriptions of that oversight, both to expose that oversight to scrutiny and to aim to improve it. It is the use and form of these advances in government and their relationships to the necessity of democratic control and accountability that present the most intriguing challenges to academic theories of government conduct. In a democracy, intelligence must deliver high-quality assessments, analysis, and warnings in the advancement of US interests while at the same time acting within the law and respecting the rights of US citizens. These two sides of the same coin give intelligence oversight multiple objectives and make the task of the overseer even more difficult.


Jennifer D. Kibbe

Covert action presents a potential policy for decision makers who want something quicker or more muscular than diplomacy but less expensive and obtrusive than military force. In contrast with intelligence, which entails collecting and analyzing information, covert action is an active instrument of foreign policy. The three main categories of covert action include propaganda, political action, and paramilitary action. Another separate category is economic action, which involves destabilizing the target state’s economy in some way. Because of the inherent secrecy of covert action, outside scholars have no way of knowing how much they do or do not know about the topic at hand and it also makes it hard to verify the information, since the information comes from a variety of sources. Covert action literature is particularly strong in case studies of particular operations. There is also a well-developed subsection within the field that focuses on covert action since the end of the Cold War, the role that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) played during World War II, and covert actions undertaken by other states. However, there are several issues in the covert action literature. These issues include the assessment of the success or failure of particular operations and of the policy instrument as a whole, the tangible and intangible costs incurred by covert action, the ethical questions raised by conducting covert actions as well as the particular methods used and its impact on democracy, the oversight of covert action, and the evolution of US law covering covert action.