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Role of agencies

Updated June 22, 2017

IT is egregious, possibly illegal and must stop.

The JIT process has underscored an unsavoury aspect of the Pakistani state: intelligence agencies seemingly running amok and answerable to no one but themselves or their political bosses.

The allegations that have been trotted out before the Supreme Court are riveting.

Civilian intelligence-gathering networks deployed against the JIT; military intelligence-gathering networks deployed against the civilian leadership; and a vast dossier compiled on the media, witnesses before the JIT and sundry citizens.

And yet, perhaps few of the allegations are surprising. In an era in which Pakistan’s state and society face unprecedented threats from militancy, terrorism and extremism, the civil and military sides of the state have been unable to shed old habits.

The people need and deserve a state and intelligence apparatus that is focused on fighting internal and external threats to peace and stability, and not a system that is far too distracted fighting old, bitter political battles.

While the Supreme Court has rightly chastised the Intelligence Bureau for its unwelcome, arguably intimidatory surveillance of the JIT, the role of the military intelligence agencies has escaped meaningful censure so far.

That is unfortunate because, for decades, the intrusive, unchecked, unmonitored actions of intelligence agencies on both sides of the civil-military divide have done much to destabilise the political landscape — an undermining of the democratic order that the Supreme Court and parliament have a chance to help correct.

The almost unbroken history of intelligence agencies promoting the interests of an institution or a government as opposed to that of the state is a fundamental reason why Pakistan is still transitioning to a genuine democracy and why political governments are so often engulfed by crisis.

From Mehrangate to the JIT, the military-led intelligence agencies have engaged in conduct that has ranged from the questionable to the downright anti-democratic.

Meanwhile, the IB has remained the prime minister’s political dirty tricks machine, including against politicians themselves.

Former prime minister Shaukat Aziz was notorious for spying on political foes and allies alike via the IB, a practice other prime ministers have readily followed.

Change is possible, but it will require great will.

Oversight of intelligence agencies would receive a boost if the nomination of intelligence chiefs is approved by parliament and if intelligence chiefs are required to regularly brief parliamentary committees.

A new set of laws that specify the responsibilities of individual intelligence agencies and limits their responsibilities could help curb excesses.

And when violations are identified, the courts should have the power to hand down meaningful punishments.

The intelligence agencies perform important work and are vital to protecting the country against internal and external threats.

If they are streamlined, reorganised and put under a new oversight regime, they should be better placed to execute their responsibilities.

Surely, that is a goal no intelligence agency will argue against.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2017