Pakistan’s ISI gets more powers to meddle in governance
It is well known that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is an all-powerful arm of the deep state. That it is adept at stage managing operations against India in Kashmir and Afghanistan is also no secret. While this historical fact is recognised, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif recently gave his consent to an order that put paid to any doubts about the role of the ISI in the functioning of the government in Pakistan. He issued orders tasking the ISI with the screening of civil servants before their induction, appointments and postings, as well as promotions.In doing so, the government has given legal cover to a practice that had already been in place but had not been formalised as part of protocol.
Prime Minister Sharif’s decision has met with criticism, with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan saying that the “role of the military in civilian affairs needs to recede if Pakistan is to move forward as a democracy”. The Dawn states that there can be no disagreement on the screening of public office holders; their performance is crucial to ensuring that state and government systems run smoothly in Pakistan. Background checks, especially of those whose credentials may be in doubt, are helpful in removing any concerns regarding their personal integrity. However, this is a job that is best left to the civilian intel agencies, in this case the Intelligence Bureau (IB). As the Dawn editorially writes: “The ISI’s job is to safeguard Pakistan from the designs of its enemies, and its focus should not be diverted to issues which can be managed by others”. This is the prevailing sentiment echoed within Pakistan.
According to a notification issued by the Establishment Division in Pakistan: “In exercise of powers conferred by sub-section 1 of section 25 of the Civil Servants Act 1973 […] read with notification No. SRO 120 (1)/1998 […] the Prime Minister is pleased to notify Directorate General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as [the] Special Vetting Agency (SVA) for verification and screening of all Public Office Holders (Officers Category) …”.The quoted laws — i.e., sub-section 1 of section 25 of the Civil Servants Act as well as SRO 120 — empower the Prime Minister to amend or make rules for the civil bureaucracy. The direction to notify the ISI as SVA was issued from the office of the Prime Minister on 6 May 2022.
A senior official from the Establishment Division told Dawn that the ISI and the IB both regularly send their reports about civil servants before the latter are posted on important assignments.According to the “Manual of Appointment, Promotion and Transfer” (2013 edition) the IB, Special Branch and District Police is to be referred to in the case of fresh applicants to the civil service. According to the new rules put in place, vetting by the ISI will also be required in the initial appointment of civil servants through the Federal Public Service Commission.The ISI will now have the formal power to implement what it had been doing earlier, informally and has a wider mandate than that of the IB in that its powers relate to all Public Office Holders!
Reports from the agencies are usually sent to the Central Selection Board at the time of promotion of bureaucrats. This practice has continued even though superior courts had, in a few cases in the past, discarded intelligence reports while noting that there was no legal provision in the Civil Servants Act that mandated agency screening of civil servants.A reading of the order issued by Prime Minister Sharif does not say anything about the role of the IB, it only talks of the ISI, as though prior to this no one was performing this task. This is an erroneous assumption.
It is likely that the IB will continue to send its reports as per routine. One line of thinking is that since the government has now given legal effect to reports issued by the ISI, these could henceforth be used in courts as a valid legal document.Clearance from intelligence agencies is not only an integral part of the promotion process for civil servants it also plays a key role in the appointment of judges to the superior judiciary. The Judicial Commission of Pakistan, headed by the chief justice, considers intelligence reports at the time of the confirmation and elevation of a Supreme Court judge.The incumbent government in Pakistan has attracted criticism for ‘officially’ empowering the ISI, to ‘vet and screen’ civil servants before their induction, appointment, posting and promotion.
The rationale is to give legal cover to a practice that was already ‘in place’ but had never been formalised. The change made by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif to civil bureaucracy rules, by notifying the spy agency as the SVA, will also give ‘legal effect’ to reports issued by the ISI for use in court as valid documents, although there are some who doubt this explanation. Most civil servants are disappointed by this decision. The job of vetting aspiring and in-service bureaucrats is beyond the mandate of the ISI. There are also concerns as to how an intelligence agency operating outside civilian oversight can be tasked with scrutinising civil government officials in matters pertaining to their appointments and promotion, unless they are suspected of being involved in anti-state activities. The only conclusion is that such actions enhance the role of a military-controlled agency and give it leverage over civil servants.
That is precisely the reason why leaders of the two largest political parties in government and opposition,the PML-N and PTI, agreed (3 June 2022) that theISI, should be under civilian control and answerable to Parliament. PML-N leader and former information minister Pervaiz Rasheed said on Twitter that if the ISI was being tasked with vetting civilian officials, then the spy agency should be placed under civilian control and be answerable to Parliament.Former information minister and PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry agreed with Rasheed and said that if “institutions wanted to increase their role in civilian affairs, then they would have to pay for it in the form of public accountability”.
“Absolutely correct,” wrote former human rights minister and PTI leader Shireen Mazari in response to Chaudhry’s Tweet. “This debate is critical for the future of democracy in Pakistan.”Former Senate Chairman, PPP’s Raza Rabbani termed the decision to task ISI with screening civil servants “surprising”, saying it amounted to “ceding civilian space”.He said the move indicated a lack of confidence in the civilian apparatus of the state and “also blurs the distinction between the civil and military bureaucracy”. The Constitution as well as the Civil Servants Act, 1973, were comprehensive laws and did not require screening of civil servants, he noted.That PM Shahbaz Sharif has taken an unpopular decision, against the wishes of his own party, it appears plausible that the Pakistan Army got this reward in exchange for making him the Prime Minister. A fair quid pro quo, it could be said! There can be no other explanation for this move.