I.A. Rehman


WHATEVER the merits of the move to change the address of the Inter Services Intelligence  (ISI) Directorate, the genius behind it earned extra marks for ham-handedness. But the storm in the media that followed indicated that the government did not have a monopoly on naivety.


The main ground of attack on the government was that the agency was being targeted only to please the US and the country’s security had been undermined. It was also said that the PPP wanted to use the agency to hound its opponents. The demonstration of solidarity with the agency was truly amazing. After a few flashes from ‘hailers’ (those who welcome everything the government does without necessarily knowing what is there to be welcomed) the scene was dominated by ‘wailers’ (those who lament without necessarily knowing where they have been hit). Leaving the hailers and wailers aside, it is possible to discuss the matter – and in fairness to the ISI. Read more….


The government certainly deserved a spanking for behaving like an urchin who runs away from school

after planting a safety pin on his teacher’s seat. It could not have been unaware of the need for explaining its portentous move. Everybody put on the cryptic notice the interpretation that suited him or her. The fact is a debate on the role of the ISI has been pending for decades.


One does not know whether the present controller of the interior ministry was around when soon after becoming premier in 1988 the late Benazir Bhutto appointed a committee, headed by Air Chief Marshal (retd) Zulfiqar Ali Khan, to review the working of security and intelligence agencies. The committee did submit its report. This report was never made public and nothing is known about any decisions taken on it.


There was nothing unusual about the decision to set up the review committee. Every government has a duty to ensure that the country’s security needs are adequately met. Those were the days of glasnost and its converts at home were led by the then army chief, Gen Aslam Beg. But openness was an extremely brief diversion and Zulfiqar Khan was left to wonder in his ambassadorial room in Washington whether anybody had had time to read his report. However, public interest in the ISI never waned. It often received kudos while the ‘mujahideen’ advanced on Kabul. After some time Air Marshal Asghar Khan took his complaint of the ISI’s interference in national elections to the Supreme Court and the country was shocked to learn of a former agency chief’s confession. Bringing credit neither to the country’s apex court nor its invisible government, the case has not been

disposed of despite repeated requests for resumption of hearing.


Meanwhile, the agency continued to attract uncomplimentary notices at home and abroad. What probably proved to be the last straw was the government statement in the Sindh High Court in 2006, in regard to a case of disappearance, that the ISI was not under its operational control. From that point onward the argument for a fresh review of the functioning of the ISI has been unexceptionable.


While raising the matter in public one should bear in mind that the other party is not free to discard its robes of secrecy and cannot answer its critics. Also nobody can be foolish enough to suggest that intelligence agencies should be disbanded. Until humankind attains the level of maturity, responsibility and transparency where cloak-and-dagger games become redundant, no state can do without intelligence services.


The only issue is that since all intelligence agencies work in the name of the state there should be some way of ensuring that they do not step outside their mandate and do not, by accident or by design, cause any harm to the national interest. These guarantees should be discussed, subject of course to the requirements of discreetness and circumspection.


The lack of knowledge about the laws and rules under which the ISI operates has caused much confusion and unhappiness. The common view that the ISI has become a state within the state can be repelled if the people can be sure that it is bound by a functional code as to what it can do and what it cannot. Any newspaper reader knows that situations do arise when states are obliged to enlarge or curtail the responsibilities of intelligence agencies. In some countries this necessitates reference to the lawmakers. How are such calls answered in Pakistan?


The announcement about the ISI’s new address, that is c/o the Ministry of Interior, did not explain what was wrong with the previous address or what the previous address was. If the idea was that the ISI should not meddle in domestic politics, a demand manifestly backed by a national consensus, the interior ministry should be the last portal to serve as the agency’s host. The relegation of the agency to the interior ministry has been contested with the claim that the ISI is only concerned with external threats to the state. That raises the question whether the Foreign Office has anything to do with intelligence – how it is gathered and processed and used.


Some confusion has also been created by lack of information about the ISI structure. Judging by the agency’s designation one presumes that it draws upon the cadres of, or serves the needs of, all three defence services. But is the practice of its being headed invariably by an army officer something mandated by law?


Then statements to the effect that the ISI reports to the president or the prime minister are meaningless. Although Pakistan’s claim to be a parliamentary democracy has no basis in fact, one may venture to point out the principle that the head of state must not be directly accessible to any state service and that all official information to him should come through the cabinet. And what is meant by reporting to the prime minister? Does it mean anything more than informing the PM of the agency’s accomplishments?


The essential questions are: Who sanctions the agency’s operations? Who allocates it financial resources and what is the system of audit, administrative as well as financial?


It is not impossible that the new government wishes to streamline the ISI’s decision-making procedures with a view to making the agency more efficient and less vulnerable to the charge of freedom from any discipline. If that is the idea there is no harm in taking the people into confidence about collective decision-making proposals. The creation of a special cell comprising responsible representatives of both civil and military wings of authority could well be considered. After all, management of intelligence matters should not be incompatible with institutionalized governance. Or is it otherwise?


(Dawn, August 7, 2008)

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