Restructuring Intelligence

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) of the UK ‘monitors communications worldwide for intelligence purposes’, and works under the foreign secretary. The British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee oversees the functioning of this specialised intelligence arm of the government of the UK. The committee recently suggested reviewing laws to examine if they were sufficiently adequate for access to private communications.
This committee also oversees both the MI5 (counterintelligence), and the MI6 (external intelligence) arms of the UK’s intelligence structure. The former works under the home ministry, while the MI6 again falls under the foreign secretary’s jurisdiction. In addition, the military has its own intelligence network for specific purposes.
The US has around 16 of such intelligence arms in its structure – working under eight different ministries or departments. Eight of these agencies come under the Department of Defence (DoD). There are a few that are very well known: the CIA, the DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency), the NSA (National Security Agency) – Snowden’s parent agency, which does what the GCHQ does in the UK – and the FBI for counterintelligence.
On top of all these is the Office of the Director National Intelligence (DNI), which attempts to bring about some unity in the functioning of these disparate organisations by putting together a ‘national intelligence estimate’. While theoretically under the DNI, the CIA is its own boss. Two congressional committees, one for each House, oversee and monitor the functioning and funding of these intelligence agencies.
Moving on to other countries, India has 20 intelligence ‘arms’; Israel ten; and Sri Lanka six. Pakistan has seven, including the ISI, the three intelligence outfits for the three respective services, the IB (Intelligence Bureau) and the FIA.
The latter two are entrusted with the task of counterintelligence, with the FIA also holding the additional responsibility for criminal prosecution. A few more can be added to the list – like the CID and the Special Branch of the police – but these essentially feed into the function of law enforcement and police action.
There are no oversight committees or special laws that govern the functioning of these intelligence arms of the government. Only generic laws such as the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and the respective service acts – for the army, navy, and the air force – provide some legal framework within which these organisations function.
The ISI began as the external intelligence arm for the three defence forces of Pakistan with the objective to assist in their mission to defend the country. It still meets the specific needs of the three services in the fulfilment of that mission. However, over the years it has grown far bigger than its envisaged role and is now much closer in functioning to the American CIA.
The CIA gets its orders directly from the president of the United States for special foreign missions, at times sharing some of them with the congressional intelligence committees. The geographical scope of operations for the CIA is of course much wider given its global agenda, while Pakistan – and thus the ISI – has far narrower interests within the region.
In all those cases where multiple intelligence arms exist, the challenge is to get them to share information with the others and develop a coherent, integrated picture of the internal and external threats to national interest and enable the executive to proactively institute measures to foil these.
Events like 9/11, the 7/7 bombings in London, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and OBL’s presence in Pakistan all point to either destructive and damaging omissions and commissions or the inability to collect fragmented information from various parts of the intelligence apparatuses. That is why an entity like the DNI, which can coordinate intelligence functions at the national level, is needed. For Pakistan, think the NSA (National Security Advisor).
The more fantastic and expansive an intelligence network, the grander is its failure. And history is replete with such examples. They will still occur, but the frequency with which they happen can be slowed down if a more coherent and integrated structure can be created towards the fulfilment of the national mission. Despite all the Snowdens of the world, there will still be the GCHQs and the NSAs doing what they must in support of their national mission. This mission, however, needs to be better stated and better controlled.
What then is the issue with the ISI, and its repeated mention as the Achilles’ heel in our discourse, especially in the chattering classes that swing between confused liberalism and social emancipation? I refer to the leaked version of a purported copy of the Abbottabad Commission Report and its inferred criticism of the ISI as the central plank in Pakistan’s failure to track OBL’s presence in Pakistan.
There are, to be sure, issues that need to be addressed in Pakistan’s intelligence structure: exclusivity, lack of interagency intelligence sharing, and the lopsidedness of either tasked or assumed responsibilities – most having fallen their respective ways by executive decree than anything remotely as sophisticated as a policy – which compound the complexity of an already intermeshed operating environment that needs centralised direction.
In 1976, when Z A Bhutto brought the ISI directly under the control of the prime minister, he introduced a political cell within the agency that would conduct political work for the government of the day. And although the latest instructions of the government directly censure any such responsibility, the Aslam Beg-Durrani saga is too recent to provide any sustained comfort.
Meddling in domestic politics and engineering the rise of governments have marred the good work the ISI has done in many other areas. Similarly, the absence of any special laws that assist intelligence operations makes such work susceptible to uncalled-for criticism and vilification because the governing laws are common criminal laws, not special laws that enable intelligence functions.
On the back of a vocal media and an active judiciary, space has opened up for those who were intrinsically given to anti-military sentiment to question these operations. The ISI then becomes an easy target because of its obvious military roots, in turn incriminating the military that is demonised in the name of operational excesses and issues of missing persons.
As Pakistan moves towards a more established democratic culture and rule of law, it is important to provide a legislative and structural umbrella under which these intelligence outfits must function without fear, while remaining committed to their central mission. Accountability and coordination control can be exercised through the NSA’s office. This is becoming more and more necessary as security challenges multiply in the short- to medium-term.
Parliament should enact special laws where legal protection is provided to these intelligence outfits, while a specially-constituted bipartisan parliamentary committee should oversee the functioning of these intelligence outfits through periodic interaction. The executive authority to direct intelligence operations must, however, continue to rest with the prime minister.