This article explores the functions and impact of the South African constitution in relation to the country's intelligence services. The constitution has proved to be a powerful instrument for transforming, controlling and constraining the services, safeguarding human rights and contributing to the management of political conflicts and crises. Yet the constitution's relevance for the intelligence community is also contested and contradictory. Paradoxically, the executive, parliament and the intelligence services believe that it is legitimate for the services to deviate from constitutional provisions because their mandate to identify and counter threats to national security is intended to protect the constitution. The article contributes to filling a gap in the literature on security sector reform, which is concerned with democratic governance but ignores the role of a constitution in regulating the security organizations and determining the nature of their governance arrangements. Intelligence agencies around the world have special powers that permit them to operate with a high level of secrecy and acquire confidential information through the use of intrusive measures. Politicians and intelligence officers can abuse these powers to manipulate the political process, infringe the rights of citizens and subvert democracy. While a constitution cannot eliminate these risks, it can establish an overarching vision, a set of principles and rules and a range of mechanisms for promoting intelligence transformation and adherence to democratic norms.
International Affairs (2010) 86 (1) 195-210 [DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2346.2010.00875.x]