Revision of the National Intelligence Service Legal Framework: a Significant Step Towards Strengthening its Professionalism


Fundasaun Mahein, 19 April 2023

Press Release:

According to a report published by the Lusa news agency on 17 April 2023, the Timor-Leste Government referred two important legal frameworks to the President of the Republic: the Revision of Decree Law no. 3/2009 15 January on the National Intelligence Service (SNI), and the Personnel Statute of SNI.

SNI is an institution which gathers information to safeguard the State’s interests of the State and protect it from threats. SNI, as with other intelligence services, fulfils an extremely important role in our State, namely to produce information which can assist the Government to make informed decisions. In the fourteen years of SNI’s existence, there has not been any revision or introduction of legal frameworks to enable SNI to carry out its mission professionally and impartially, to ensure that it can respond to regional and global challenges. Given the increased pressure placed on SNI by existing security challenges at the national, regional and global levels, updated legal frameworks are needed to facilitate and strengthen SNI’s work.

Fundasaun Mahein believes that the revision of SNI’s legal basis, along with the introduction of the Personnel Statute, is a significant step towards improving SNI’s performance and ability to carry out its mission, for of the following reasons:

  1. Several sections of the original Decree-Law no. 3/2009, 15 January are no longer relevant, and adjustments are therefore needed to ensure that SNI can implement is mission professionally and impartially;
  2. In the draft Revision of this Decree-Law, the Government proposed to establish a dedicated National Directorate for Cybernetic Intelligence. This is extremely important in today’s globalised world in which all systems are digitalised, including governance systems. Security agencies must be equipped with the necessary tools to adapt to this reality, particularly intelligence services. Furthermore, with the plan to bring submarine fibre optic cables to Timor-Leste, security must be guaranteed for this vital infrastructure;
  3. The revised Decree-Law introduces another new component of SNI, namely the Office of Inspection and Audits. This will serve as an important control mechanism – a check and balance – which will ensure that SNI operations abide by existing laws. By contrast, the existing Decree-Law contains no rigorous control mechanism. Recently, some have expressed concerns regarding the legality of SNI operations, notably the President of the Republic. The establishment of a new office for inspection and audits is a significant step in ensuring legal oversight of SNI operations. In democratic states, secret service structures and oversight mechanisms are defined in law, which provides the public with a guarantee that secret services carry out their mission according to the law. Moreover, although such work is done in secret, this does not mean that intelligence services are immune from legal consequences. Therefore, this draft law is important to secure accountability and professionalism;
  4. In this legislative package, the Government has proposed to define a Personnel Statute for SNI. This is a very positive step, for two main reasons: first, SNI is an essential state agency with personnel, and therefore requires a personnel statute to manage existing human resources within the institution. Second, the nature of SNI’s work is different to other public institutions. The new statute can therefore assist in defining the recruitment modalities which SNI will use, while also increasing the motivation of the staff by providing personal development opportunities and managing remuneration levels. It can also facilitate specialisation of SNI personnel in various areas such as foreign languages.
  5. An appropriate personnel statute can also improve SNI’s performance and contribution to its national security mission by preventing politicisation of the institution. When there is no appropriate statute governing human resource policy and decisions, this creates space for politicisation of the secret services, as recruitment is less likely to be conducted in an appropriate manner, while appropriate training for SNI personnel cannot be provided. Due to the increasing tendency towards politicisation of state institutions in Timor-Leste, the new personnel statute will assist greatly in ensuring the professionalism of SNI as a non-partisan state institution.

FM believes that the proposed legal changes are necessary to strengthen SNI’s performance and professionalism, and can ensure that SNI can fulfil its mission of responding to security challenges, particularly those related to digital platforms and technologies. FM therefore asks the President of the Republic to promulgate the legislative package proposed by the Government.

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