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Kenya: New Spy Chief Will Lead the National Intelligence Service – What the Job Is All About


Kenya’s President William Ruto recently nominated a new national intelligence chief. Breaking with tradition, the president picked a career intelligence officer, Noordin Haji.

But what is national intelligence and what work does it do, particularly in Kenya? Since 1999, the country’s spy chiefs have been picked from the military. Haji was previously the director of public prosecutions.

Parliament will vet Haji, in keeping with the law on public appointments. Legislators will either approve or reject his nomination to the National Intelligence Service as director-general.

Ruto’s choice reflects his election pledges on security sector reforms. He said he would end political interference, extrajudicial killings, ineffective oversight and poor accountability in the sector.

In my view as a political scientist who has studied Kenya’s counter-terrorism policies and strategies, Haji could improve civilian oversight and accountability in the intelligence service. Civilian leadership could also help establish a service that adheres to the law and respects human rights. Its covert operations haven’t always fallen within the law.

What is intelligence?

Intelligence is information that can avert threats to national security or promote national interests.

Intelligence services are state agencies that produce reports to help maintain national security. These reports also provide strategic information relevant to a country’s economic growth.

By providing reliable information about potential threats to national security, intelligence agencies contribute to peace and stability. This supports a country’s social, economic and political development.

Read more: Kenya terror alerts: political scientist unpacks the intelligence behind them

The information such agencies gather is classified as counter-intelligence, domestic intelligence or external intelligence. Kenya’s National Intelligence Service has three primary divisions responsible for these different kinds of information.

In the Kenyan context, counter-intelligence aims to prevent attacks from foreign powers. It also counters subversion, sabotage and espionage. This covers any hostile activity that targets Kenya’s people, institutions, installations or resources.

Domestic intelligence is information about internal threats to national security. External intelligence covers any threats to national security from foreign powers.

In Kenya, credible intelligence has foiled several Al-Shabaab terror attacks.

What are the functions of intelligence?

The National Intelligence Service functions to detect actual and potential national security threats.

It then advises Kenya’s president and government on these threats. It also recommends security intelligence measures for other state agencies to adopt. It advises Kenya’s 47 county governments on security matters.

The intelligence service provides confidential security reports on people who apply for state positions that require vetting. It promotes national interests within and outside Kenya. It supports law enforcement agencies in detecting and preventing serious crimes.

By law, the National Intelligence Service isn’t allowed to undertake paramilitary activities. It can’t commit acts of violence against individuals or take part in activities that promote a political organisation. The service falls under the office of the presidency.

It’s a civilian agency. This means it is not legally permitted to carry out police functions, such as search, arrest and prosecution.

Some of the threats it detects, for example terrorism, have criminal implications. In such cases, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, which falls under the National Police Service, investigates and sets the appropriate charge.

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There’s an important difference between collecting intelligence for national security and gathering evidence for criminal investigations.

For intelligence services, the secrecy of sources is essential. In criminal investigations, there must be public access to the evidence to deliver a fair trial.

As a former director of public prosecutions, Ruto’s nominee gained experience in gathering information for criminal investigations. This adds to his experience as an intelligence officer. This background could have a positive impact on the service’s intelligence-gathering role.

How is intelligence gathered?

This is done through a process known as the intelligence cycle. It includes:

  • planning and allocation of resources based on threat assessments
  • collecting information on individuals, places, events and activities
  • processing and analysing this information
  • sharing information with decision-makers
  • feedback to intelligence agencies.

The feedback begins a new cycle.