Monday, January 7, 2008

A Shadowy Role

(Courtesy The News, Jan 5, 2008)

The role of Pakistan's extensive network of intelligence agencies has come under scrutiny once more in the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Whereas President Pervez Musharraf has categorically denied any possibility of an agency hand in the killing, fingers continue to be pointed in their direction. One of the reasons for such suspicions, which have also been raised repeatedly in the past in relation to various events, is the fact that so little is known about these organizations and because they have often been used to manipulate election results and do successive governments' dirty work. Though they consume enormous budgets, paid for by taxpayers, the public knows next to nothing about how they operate or, indeed, what their assigned role is. This is all the more true since, over the decades since Pakistan was founded, the number of agencies operating in the country has grown. It is unclear who, if any authority, controls these organizations -- and in some cases they have been reported to be working at cross purposes, depending on the political interests with which they are affiliated. Reports of the existence of various factions within some of the larger agencies make the situation even murkier.

Events that have unfolded over the past few decades at various points in Pakistan's turbulent history indicate that in many cases the parliament or civilian government in place had little knowledge about the activities of agencies or even their broad ambit of responsibilities. While it is true that, particularly in a situation such as Pakistan's, where a network of terrorist outfits operates, an intelligence set-up is required, there can be no justification for the political role it is frequently alleged to be playing. The lack of information about this role adds to the apprehensions that intelligence agencies have come to comprise a kind of a state within a state, and operate as a power in themselves, with little control by government. That both the interior and defence ministries have in the past told courts that the intelligence agencies do not fall under them is a dangerous indication of the fact that these shadowy organizations function outside the organized structure of government.

This is an alarming situation. These organizations have been repeatedly accused of deliberately creating instability and disorder to meet set political purposes. This, it has been reported, has been achieved at times through the clever dissemination of the media, exploiting the fact that for reporters access to information remains limited, making them vulnerable to 'fed' items of news. Even today, there have been allegations that the agencies have been at work in creating confusion about the murder of Benazir Bhutto. Recently, it was in the case involving the 400 or so 'disappeared' people in the country that the intelligence agencies had gained most notoriety. The Supreme Court had in the recent past held the agencies responsible for whisking away hundreds of citizens and keeping them in secret jails. The controversy had continued through 2007, with the court threatening to order agency chiefs to appear before it. With the dissolution of the previous Supreme Court benches, the case today seems to have been shelved.

But given the controversy that exists over the country's secret agencies, there is a need to clarify their functions and explain who is accountable for their actions. The best and more transparent way would be to make them accountable and subservient to parliament, the norm in fully functional democracies the world over -- that is the only way to keep a proper check on them, just like in the case of any government department. Until this happens, these organizations will continue to generate controversy and fuel conspiracy theories, and this can in no way serve Pakistan's urgent need for greater accountability, greater transparency and greater credibility at all levels within the state.

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