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Playing politics with national security

Written by Leah Wawro on Friday, 25 January 2013

Our Defence and Security team will launch its new Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index on Tuesday 29 January 2013. The index will provide a detailed analysis of the corruption risks faced by the defence establishments of 82 countries around the world. In preparation, project officer Leah Warwo examines the risk of political corruption in the defence sector. For politicians looking to illicitly fund their election campaigns, the defence sector—with big deals, huge budgets, high secrecy, and funded with your taxpayers money—can be a prime target.


When a French judge interviewed the ex-wife of French politician Thierry Gaubert, she told him that her husband returned from a trip carrying ‘briefcases full of cash’; that cash is alleged to have funded the 1994-’95 French presidential campaign of Edouard Balladur. Through a system of commissions and re-commissions kickbacks, dealers, Swiss bank accounts and suitcases, the money from an arms sale from France to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia was allegedly transferred back to the Balladur government that originally approved the deal. Later, 11 engineers from the defence company DCN that sold Pakistan the submarines from this deal were killed in a terrorist attack—allegedly because promised bribes went unpaid.

Politicians military and intelligence leaders, and defence companies work closely together. This proximity can facilitate the process of doing resources-resources-business in a highly technical, complex, and sensitive field. But it can also facilitate corruption. The defence sector tends to command a significant portion of the national budget. It involves sensitive information, and can be an important and volatile political issue. In many countries, military leaders and defence companies tend to be influential actors in national politics. The size and influence of the sector can be a tempting source of corruption for politicians, particularly if there is a lack of transparency to the public that elects them.

Although politicians themselves can be corrupt, of course, effective oversight by elected leaders is a vital protection against corruption in the defence sector. Major defence decisions—the defence budget, arms purchases, the decision of whether to declare war or conduct peacekeeping operations—are made by political leadership and legislatures, along with military officials. In order to have defence and security forces that are accountable to their citizens, a representative legislature must have the power to oversee defence decisions, to investigate potential cases of corruption—and to be able to access the information if they need to.

An openly published and clear national defence policy should form the foundation for decision-making and actions in the defence sector. For example, if a defence policy states a need to protect the nation from a particular threat, and identifies gaps in the existing capability of the national defence establishment, that policy will inform procurement decisions (the purchase of arms or military equipment) and justify purchases. The procurement process itself poses enormous corruption risk but corruption can start before tenders are issued and contracts awarded, when governments develop a defence and security policy. If a defence policy indicates a need for particular equipment—for example, a helicopter with certain qualities—that policy can affect who the country purchases from, and even favour a particular supplier. Without strong controls and oversight in place, politicians may be swayed by bribes, personal or political influence towards a defence policy that meets their needs—not the country’s.

An opaque, overly simplified defence budget containing secret items not overseen by legislature can hide corrupt activity and make it impossible for defence leaders to be held to account. Two thirds of the countries studied in the TI Defence and Security’s report “The Transparency of National Defence Budgets” provide no information on secret spending to their legislatures or even special legislative committees on defence. Just 29 countries were found to provide information, and even among those, the level of detail varies. In order for legislators to effectively scrutinise spending, the defence budget must be open to them—and it must be transparent, detailed, and clear.

Some realms of defence and security are in particular need of legislative oversight. For example, some militaries are involved in extracting or selling national assets like oil, timber, or diamonds. Scrutiny of such processes by elected officials can help ensure that citizens reap the benefits of national resources in their country, not high-ranking military officials, or the military as an institution.

The intelligence services often deal with sensitive information and covert activities, so they also pose a challenge for transparency. Where full and speedy disclosure is impossible, accountability to elected officials is crucial. Because intelligence agencies control information that is hidden from the public eye, the risk of corruption rises dramatically. And it also makes them a target for groups such as organised crime. For example, in 2011, agents of the Colombian intelligence agency Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) were found to have colluded with drug lords and leaked highly sensitive information—including names and missions of informants and detectives.

For politicians looking to illicitly fund their election campaigns, the defence sector—with big deals, huge budgets, high secrecy, and funded with your taxpayers money—can be a prime target, as the ‘Karachi-gate’ scandal showed. There is no doubt that corruption can occur between politicians and defence leaders to the benefit of each, and that must be guarded against through investigations by other politicians, civil society and the media. This vigilance is needed to ensure that the defence sector, and the politics that surround it, are clean and transparent. Democratic oversight of defence and security by elected officials, civil society, and the media is vital to ensure that military and security establishments fulfil their raison d’etre: to serve and protect citizens.

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Read 5084 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 11:47
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Leah Wawro

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