The democratic control of the Romanian intelligence

Marian Zulean & Emilia Sercan recently published a new peer-reviewed article about the democratic control (or lack thereof) of the Romanian intelligence system. Their main argument, with which I mostly concur, has two pillars:

First, the post-communist reform of the intelligence services has been incomplete, if not a semi-failure. The reform process was started as a consequence of the EU and NATO conditionality mechanisms and has been limited to a top-down, institutional, de jure, reform of the existing working frameworks. And once the conditionality disappeared, there was not sufficient willingness to continue a substantive reform of the Romanian intelligence services. This lack of political will and the push-backs from insiders made substantive reform impossible to implement.

Second, they show that democratic control over the Romanian intelligence services is “an unfinished business”, if not just an illusion. By arguing this, they refute the institutionalist accounts of democratic control and civil-military relations in Romania made by scholars like Thomas Bruneau and Florina Cristiana Matei, which argue the opposite. Zulean & Șercan’s take is that even if de jure, the democratic control exists and it is fairly strong, with all three branches of government involved, de facto it is just an illusion and has significant shortcomings.

Full disclosure: Some time ago, I also published an institutionalist account on the same topic, which I consider today to be overly friendly to the Romanian intelligence services.

In order to explore in more depth the lack of a real, de facto, democratic control of the intelligence services, they look at some recent public scandals. An interesting point in their narrative is the discussion on the arbitrary wiretapping and maybe even general surveillance of the population by the services, all in an unlawful manner. Using Radu Chiriță’s recent revelations, they show that judicial control over the wiretapping activity of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) is almost non-existant. Between 2010 and 2015, 93% of all (109,946) wiretapping requests were approved by the Romanian courts. The number of wiretappings for reasons of national security has also increased from just 48 in 2004 to 2497 in 2014. These numbers show that there is no serious, critical inquiry on the part of the judiciary over the requests received from the intelligence services. They also note the recent unconstitutionality decisions coming from the Constitutional Court and subtly refer to the undue relations between prosecutors, judges, and the intelligence community. A bit too subtle, in my opinion.

Further, they delve into the conspicuous civil-military relations between the Romanian political elite & the intelligence services. They show, correctly, that the boundary between the military and the civilian elite is fuzzy and very fluid. This raises the question of who controls who. Are the civilian decisionmakers under the control of the intelligence or the other way around? They emphasize the already existing debate over the undue influence of the Romanian intelligence over the Romanian policy-making process, the Romanian politicians, and the elite members of the judiciary. Moreover, they show how being linked to the intelligence world, through academic or executive educational programs, has become, to some degree, a certificate of elite membership. All important politicians and decision-makers attend, even if in name only, academic programs or courses at the National Security College or the National Intelligence Academy “Mihai Viteazu”.

The ‘correct’ academic pedigree has become a way of attesting your belongingness to the decision-making elite. Basically, the intelligence services have received a  carte blanche to decide who becomes a part of the Romanian establishment and political elite. Of course, this raises serious questions of who controls who and what impact does the possible re-socialization made through these ‘academic’ networks and venues of social interaction. It should be noted that Emilia Șercan is one of the journalists that uncovered the systematic plagiarism phenomenon of the last years. Her work shows that the system is not meritocratic. It does not care about academic abilities. Firstly, the academic titles and certificates (Ph.D. for those in the inner circle, certificates for the rest) issued by the military academic system are used simply as signaling instruments and for controlling access to the seats of power. Secondly, the academic institutions have been transformed into gatekeepers of the establishment.

Overall, Zulean and Șercan’s work is a much needed, well documented, and competent analysis of the current state of the democratic control (or lack thereof) of the Romanian intelligence services. However, it has some shortcomings, maybe due to the inherent space limitations imposed by publishing a journal article.

First, I think that they have focused too much on the role and influence of the Romanian intelligence services at the expense of offering a more holistic image of the civil-intelligence relations. Their focus on the intelligence side of these relations takes away almost all of the agency that the civilian elite members have and gives the impression that all of them are in bed with the intelligence services. The most important Romanian politicians are not sheep! And even if they may get in bed with the Romanian intelligence and accept their control, they are always looking for ways of escaping that control. As it has become obvious in the last year, once a political leader (e.g. Liviu Dragnea) thinks that he has acquired sufficient power, (s)he will try to resist the tentative control and pressure performed by the intelligence services. I would even argue that this has become a competition for power between two fairly equally powerful groups. Analytically, it does not help to dismiss the real and quite visible agency of the civilian elite.

Second, the authors do not go deep enough in their discussion over the importance of institutional and national security cultures for a functional and effective democratic control. They rightly show that the reform of the intelligence services consisted mostly in revamping the institutional and regulatory framework, without doing a complete re-socialization of the intelligence personnel. The literature presupposes that just changing the personnel with new people will suffice, which is not entirely correct. There is still an institutional memory, an organizational culture that has been inherited by the new generations of intelligence officers from those that remained from the previous generation and through their education. There is a stringent need for a more coherent and in-depth analysis of what are the characteristics of the organizational culture and memory of the Romanian Intelligence Service. To the benefit of the authors, I need to recognize, though, that you cannot do such a substantive analysis without getting inside the system.

Third and last, Zulean and Șercan seem to overlook the influence and role of the international and North-Atlantic partners of the Romanian intelligence. Is anyone doubting that the American or British intelligence does not know what’s happening in Romania or even inside the Romanian intelligence services? Isn’t public knowledge that Florian Coldea and George Maior, the current Romanian Ambassador to Washington & former Director of SRI, have received medals from their American counterparts for their contribution to the bilateral cooperation? We should question more openly why Romania’s western intelligence partners have not taken a public position when it became obvious that the democratic control over the intelligence services is dysfunctional.

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