Democratizing the NIS

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Democratizing the NIS

The Saenuri Party and Democratic Party leaders finally agreed to launch a bipartisan committee to overhaul the National Intelligence Service. Hard-line members worry about some trade-offs, but what the controversial allegations about the top spy agency’s meddling in last year’s presidential race underscore is that the NIS must be structurally separated from politics.

The past DP government also sought reforms in the spy agency, but they failed to generate tangible results. Reforming the country’s intelligence agency is no easy task. The bipartisan initiative may be more productive than the president’s idea of encouraging the agency to reform itself.

The ruling and main opposition parties will form a special committee with an equal number of members. The committee will be chaired by the DP and will also have legislative power. Some hawkish members question bipartisan efforts, but few argue deny a fundamental need to reform the NIS. The committee must be delegated with the responsibility of overhauling the country’s top spy agency.

The special committee must first establish democratic order in the agency. The NIS controversy was triggered by the abuse of intelligence. Employees were mobilized to spread news, rumors and writings on the Internet on the pretext of containing a pro-North Korea stance.

Online slander campaigns organized by the staff are a serious infringement on the democratic legitimacy of elections. The campaign was carried out under the supervision and protection of the spy agency chief. Such a clandestine operation must be banned if the country wants to defend democracy. Public servants should be able to exercise their rights to refuse an order from their bosses if it is related to political involvement.

Due to its sensitive and confidential line of work, the NIS and its chief report only to the president. But the agency must come under greater legislative scrutiny of its organization, budgeting and the activities of its chief. Unlike other agencies, the NIS reports only the coat of its total budget instead of detailed breakdowns, and can refuse a probe by the Board of Audit and Inspection.

These prerogatives - bestowed under military regimes - should be revised to democratize the agency. The special committee must turn all the pages to finally divorce the agency from politics. None of its efforts, however, must get in the way of the agency’s intelligence activities on North Korea.
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