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[Editorial] Reform of spy agency

[Editorial] Reform of spy agency

New laws step up parliamentary oversight of NIS

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Published : 2014-01-02 19:48
Updated : 2014-01-02 19:48

The National Assembly has passed a set of bills aimed at banning the National Intelligence Service from meddling in domestic politics and bringing the powerful spy agency under parliamentary oversight.

Since its creation in 1961, the NIS has never been properly scrutinized by an external organization or held to account. It has been given a free hand to operate in light of the need to keep intelligence activities under wraps.

What prompted lawmakers to push for reform of the spy agency was the allegations that it had attempted to tamper with the presidential election in December 2012 by staging online and mobile smear campaigns against the opposition contender.

The reform package, pushed through the Assembly early on New Year’s Day morning, will put in place an array of measures to keep the spy agency from intervening in politics.

In the first place, it bans NIS agents from posting political comments on the Internet or social networking services under the pretext of countering North Korea’s psychological warfare. Punishments for those who violate the ban have been strengthened.

The package also prohibits NIS agents, called intelligence officers, from making routine visits to public and private organizations, including Cabinet ministries, the National Assembly, political parties and news outlets.

Officially, NIS officers visit these organizations to gather intelligence. But critics argue that their visits are intended to control government agencies and conduct surveillance on political parties and private companies.

To strengthen parliamentary oversight of the spy agency, the package calls for making the Assembly’s Intelligence Committee an independent standing panel. Currently, the committee only convenes when problems involving the agency arise and its members all double as members of other standing panels.

The Intelligence Committee will also be given the power to scrutinize the spy agency’s budget, which has thus far remained untouchable. To prevent the NIS from using taxpayers’ money for illegal activities, the NIS director is obliged to report the agency’s spending details to the panel.

The reform package represents the first major parliamentary bid to make the NIS more accountable and keep it away from politics. Whether the parliamentary remedy will work or not depends to a large degree on how far the spy agency goes in implementing it.

All NIS agents should bear in mind that, should any of them be found to be involved in politics again, it would spell disaster for their organization and further narrow its scope of activities.

Now, with the passage of the package, the parliamentary special committee on NIS reform has successfully completed its legislative agenda. So it is shifting its focus to beefing up the spy agency’s capabilities to carry out its proper missions ― to cope with terrorism and gather intelligence on North Korea and foreign countries.

Members on the special committee should work across the aisle, as they did in writing the reform proposals, to make the NIS a more competent and efficient spy agency. They need to approach the task of revamping its organization and reallocating its resources from the perspective of maximizing national interests.

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