Reform of Pakistan’s intelligence services
By Hassan Abbas
The News, March 15, 2008
The many crises faced by Pakistan today, ranging from perennial political instability to the rise of religious extremist forces, are partly a gift of intelligence agencies’ various operations (read blunders). A misplaced sense of patriotism, poor organizational management, the presence of a few rogue elements, and at times nothing but sheer incompetence, define the work ethic of our intelligence community. Indeed, they are not solely responsible for the mess Pakistan is in, and on occasions the criticism is exaggerated; they have produced their share of unsung heroes as well.
Reform of this sector desperately needs the attention of the new government before it succumbs to a series of clandestine operations. The deterioration in standards is reversible and these agencies can potentially be a source of strength for democracy and can effectively safeguard the country’s interests.
First, it is pertinent to clearly define what constitutes Pakistan’s intelligence community for the purpose of this article. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and, to a limited extent, Military Intelligence (MI) fall into this category. The ISI is the largest and the most resourceful of all, the IB is the oldest and, comparatively, the MI is the most professional of all. (That changed to a degree, however, when it was dragged into the political arena in 1989 by General Aslam Beg, who didn’t trust ISI chief Lt-Gen Shamsur Rahman Kallu because he was appointed by prime minister Benazir Bhutto.)
The primary mission of intelligence services in a modern democratic state is to collect, analyze, evaluate, and pass on foreign intelligence to the government to assist it in making decisions related to national security. Their standard task also includes producing a range of studies that cover virtually any topic of interest to national-security policymakers. Depending on the resources, they use electronic means as well as human sources and, if necessary, undertake covert actions at the direction of the chief executive. A covert action is defined as an act to influence political, economic or military conditions abroad, while keeping in view some ethical considerations. Counter-intelligence operations mainly work to guard against espionage from foreign intelligence agencies in the country. They are also expected to effectively protect the secrets of its sources and methods. The role of intelligence services is to only report information and analysis and not to make policy recommendations.
Whether all intelligence agencies follow these basic guidelines and operate within these parameters is an important question here. In many cases they do not. The international reputation of the CIA, the SIS, Mossad, the former KGB and RAW is a case in point. Still, in democratic countries intelligence agencies are often held accountable, their budgets are vetted in legislatures, and their top officials are regularly questioned -- even publicly. Anyone in doubt should read transcripts (available on the internet) of US congressional hearings where US intelligence chiefs are called to testify about their performance and then face tough and probing questions for hours. For starters, just Google the phrase "CIA chief grilled" and you will find out what I mean. In the US such hearings are often shown live on C-Span channel also.
In comparison, Pakistani cabinet ministers cannot dare question even a middle-ranking intelligence official of the ISI or IB. It is not that Pakistani politicians are spineless -- the problem is the perception (often closer to reality) that spooks can carry the day in case of a confrontation. Pakistani intelligence outfits have so often proved (especially in the 1990s) that they are stronger than the parliament -- a tragic reality (hopefully of the days gone by). Coming back to the point, by and large the western agencies named above are considered quite effective from their national perspectives, and their analyses are often deemed useful by their political leaderships -- notwithstanding the controversy surrounding WMD presence in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq which, as some argue, had more to do with politics than inaccurate information. International notoriety is not considered a very bad thing for this type of organizations anyhow. In authoritarian regimes, however, the intelligence agencies are inward-looking, above the law and ruthless, and largely serve the domestic interests of the ruling elites rather than the state.
In Pakistan, various reform efforts have been attempted in the past, to little avail -- as, like, in the case of police reforms, many good proposals and reports are thrown in some dark corner. One former ISI chief, briefly interviewed for this piece through email, told me that "one recommendation was common (in all reform proposals): create a JIC (joint intelligence committee) to coordinate the work of all agencies and present the big picture." He lamented, however, that "the problem lies with the political leadership (no, the ISI did not come in the way to protect its monopoly) who was afraid to create another power centre." This indicates a major flaw in the system -- meaning thereby that all agencies under discussion seldom talk to each other and there is no mechanism in place to strategize and think together. Who is responsible for this, political leaderships or dictators, is a separate issue, which I leave for another day. This brings me to an unsolicited list of "things to do" for the new government in this sphere:
First, in the words of a former army chief (who also graciously responded to my emailed questions on the subject), "Intelligence reforms should be based on determining spheres of responsibility for each agency and reporting channels. Next is the need for coordination at a level above all these agencies -- this level should have budgetary control to give it teeth." He also perfectly named it "Intelligence Coordination Committee" (ICC), tasked to present well-thought-out analyses and projections to the highest level and not scraps of information.
The ICC should be helped by a newly constituted National Security Advisory Board with 15-20 seasoned persons from the media who cover national security issues, a couple of former intelligence chiefs, professors, writers, retired bureaucrats, judges -- preferably all without political ambitions and whose track record is there for all to see. Their job would be simply to advise the ICC on solicited issues.
On the operational side of things, the role of intelligence agencies should be confined to national security issues, and political engineering and surveillance for and of the government of the day should not be their mandate. Tragically, suicide bombers are blowing themselves up wherever they want to and some agencies are busy tapping the phones of newly elected members of the parliament and major opposition political leaders to report to their masters which way the wind is blowing. The culture of producing a "rosy picture" scenarios to win the "hearts and minds" of the leadership reportedly also remains entrenched.
Both the National Assembly and Senate should have Intelligence Committees. Currently the Pakistani Senate has 34 committees focused on various issues -- but none for monitoring the performance of the intelligence community. Same is the case in the lower house. Such committees will provide a forum for face-to-face interaction between politicians and "public servants."
The dominance of the armed forces (primarily the army) at commanding/key positions at the cost of fewer promotions for permanent civilian intelligence cadre is a disincentive for many. Even in the case of the army, some of the finest intelligence officers were either retired early or not promoted to a level they deserved (or would have achieved by remaining in the mainstream army).
Last but not the least, former senior intelligence officials (including director generals) should pick up their pens and write books on the subject. A hot title can be "Confessions of a former ISI chief"! In the international market there is no dearth of books written by former intelligence officials of the US, the UK, Russia and even Israel. No one called them traitors in their countries or condemned them for revealing national secrets. Instead, this enriched these nations.
For a successful transition to democracy, which is within Pakistan’s reach today, and to defeat terrorism, Pakistan requires an immediate, serious and meaningful intelligence reform effort.
(This concludes the three part series on security and intelligence reform)
The writer, a former government official, is a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, author of Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror.