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Old Sunday, November 28, 2010
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The most powerful of them all

The ISI and the rest do in fact play a major role in Pakistani politics and most of what they do is something about which most of us can only speculate

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

When the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (CJ) asked the Attorney-General during yet another hearing of a missing persons case on Thursday whether there is any law in Pakistan which governs the conduct of our vaunted intelligence agencies, he was apparently startled by the negative reply. This is strange since all of Pakistan knows about these agencies who routinely take away Pakistani citizens under the pretext of national security.

Among the major benefits that those committed to the long-term democratisation of the state have garnered from the series of events that started with the CJ’s sacking in March 2007 has been the quite considerable scrutiny that has come to be focused upon the doings of our security establishment, and particularly our spymasters. This is not to suggest that the most powerful amongst the powerful are now held to account any more than in the past, but the fact that petitions are filed in the courts charging them with illegal kidnappings nevertheless represents some progress. Still until and unless political forces assert themselves vis a vis the establishment, what takes place in the courtroom will remain largely symbolic.

Spy agencies, by their very definition, are supposed to be immune from any kind of public accountability. Espionage is not necessarily specific to exercise of power in the modern period but it is undoubtedly true that with the inception of the modern state the secret surveillance apparatus has taken on a life of its own and become a power without parallel in the history of settled societies.

The resources available to official intelligence agencies match the power that they exercise. The fact that much of what they do is not recorded anywhere means that the resources that they are allocated also cannot be attributed to any official expenditure head. In effect this means that almost limitless discretionary funds exist for the sustenance of our spymasters.

Most modern states subscribe to the practice of declassifying official intelligence records two decades after the fact. A lot of ‘research’ on the surveillance apparatus and American foreign policy, for example, is undertaken on the basis of declassified documents of the Department of Defence. This does not mean that the deepest of secrets are ever fully unveiled; no one to this day has been able to make sense of the mystery surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and it is likely that some such secrets just die with those who made them.

In Pakistan we do not even benefit from the declassification of documents. While there are provisions for certain government records to be accessed by ordinary citizens — typically researchers — it is common practice for state functionaries to deny such access. I have had enough personal experiences trying to secure official circulars from the Zia period stashed away in government archives to know that certain information is simply is out of bounds.

It is now well-documented that in the early 1970s then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto authorised the creation of a political cell in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with a mandate to monitor the activities of political opponents. The decision was fatal not only for Bhutto himself but also for the generation of political activists who lived through the Zia dictatorship. In the post-Zia period, our spymasters’ autonomy has increased and only due to the contradictions thrown up by the so-called ‘war on terror’ has a spanner been thrown in the works.

Conventional thinking suggests that intelligence agencies are a necessary evil. The perceived security threats posed by foreign powers and internal dissidents alike are enough to mandate the existence of the intelligence apparatus. This logic has of course been taken to its logical conclusion in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Every state in the world now has a justification to make its surveillance apparatus even more unaccountable than before, namely the need to defend the populace against the unending ‘terrorist’ threat.

Pakistanis — particularly those who are politically active — have a rather ambivalent view on intelligence agencies. On the one hand most of us subscribe to the ‘greater national interest’ narrative that endows the intelligence apparatus with so much de facto power. However, there is also a society-wide narrative of conspiracies which begins and ends with the ISI (and its less potent counterparts). Indeed so much of what happens in Pakistani politics is attributed to the ‘agencies’ as to make much of our political banter almost meaningless.

This is not to suggest that conspiracy theories can exist in a society where conspiracies do not take place. The ISI and the rest do in fact play a major role in Pakistani politics and most of what they do is something about which most of us can only speculate. That there is finally open acknowledgment in the courtrooms that are supposed to guarantee us easy and impartial justice is a welcome development. But it is also worth bearing in mind that, in the more than three years since this SC has taken up the issue of missing persons, there has been virtually no progress made. Each successive court hearing ends with the representatives of our agencies feigning ignorance and the court appears quite helpless to do anything about it.

In recent times, too much hope for change in Pakistan has been vested in the SC. There are certain things that the courts should and hopefully will do. But the vast majority of our political quandaries can only be resolved by political forces. Bringing our all-powerful intelligence agencies to account entails a long and painful struggle. Many generations of committed activists have done much to bring us to where we are today. But there is a long way to go yet. Whether or not we have the stomach to take the fight to the most powerful of them all will determine how much progress we make as a democracy and as a multi-national state still searching for an identity.
Verily, His command, when He intends a thing, is only that He says "Be!" - and it is! (Al-Quran)
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