Restoring the ISI’s tarnished reputation

Published: July 25, 2011

Ghulam Nabi Fai, 62, a US citizen detained on Tuesday, is suspected of links to ISI PHOTO: ONLINE

An intelligence agency is at the frontlines of every war, especially against terrorism. Terror and terror networks can only be contained, dismantled or destroyed with effective intelligence gathering. But if the reputation of the intelligence agency is tarnished and its every action is questioned, no war can be effectively won and no strategy can be properly executed.

It is unfortunate that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) is caught up with—and in some cases, rightly accused—for many domestic and international incidents involving terrorism and other transnational crimes. At the same time, it has also become a scapegoat for those who have been unsuccessful in their international objectives. Hence, to restore its respect as one of the top intelligence agencies in the world, the ISI needs to democratise its inner workings and become a transparent organisation.

By transparency, I don’t mean it should disclose its operational techniques and tradecraft skills. Absolutely not. Such practices should be guarded with utmost secrecy. However, the ISI should become more transparent in terms of its departments, defining its role and duties as mandated by the government, and using its own media branch to launch a successful public relations campaign.

While carrying out its activities, the ISI should consult legal counsels to ensure it doesn’t violate Pakistani laws. But the laws of other countries don’t require the same consideration—for instance, in the recent arrest of Ghulam Nabi Fai in Virginia, who, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and news sources, is an ISI agent trying to shift US policy towards Kashmir. If this news is accurate, Fai could be charged with treason under US law, because he is a US citizen collaborating with a foreign intelligence service. Likewise, Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA in the Bin Laden raid, could also be charged with treason under local laws.

People, in and out of Pakistan, do not know much about the ISI other than mere speculation and educated guesses about what the organisation does and who sets the agenda. Is there a consumer-producer relationship between the agency and policymakers, or is it just an extension of the army?

It also seems the ISI is not accessible to those who are not in the armed forces or who don’t have connections with the military. To bridge this gap, the ISI needs to break away from the Public Service Commission for civilian inductees and create its own human resource department for direct hiring. It should develop a presence on college campuses across the country to attract educated youth through job fairs to intellectualize its manpower. A highly sophisticated selection process should be used to screen potential employees. Public outreach is the need of the hour.

The ISI should also create a center for the study of intelligence, a center similar to that in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) where every aspect of intelligence is studied and researched, thus producing  a very useful intelligence literature. This helps improve intelligence analysis and collection by making the process more efficient. In addition, the ISI should also create a history department where academics and historians record the agency’s history in real time to create a strong and legitimate legacy, and not one based on half-truth, speculation and guesses.

The managers at every level in the ISI should ensure that information, official and liaison conversations, and reports are well documented and timely released through an archives department. The declassification of such documents would be an essential part of the transparency campaign, and would open up the ISI to public knowledge and discussion.

Lastly, the ISI should initiate a scholarship program for retiring officers to teach for a few years at a public or private university, bringing practical experience to the classroom. This would diversify and enrich the academia and attract students to serve their country. Defense and intelligence studies are disciplines which are not valued in Pakistan. There are only a few universities, apart from War Colleges, that attempt to teach these subjects. Pakistan is in need of such disciplines if it wants to break away from the traditional national security processes.

If Pakistan wants to beat back terrorism and stabilise the security situation, the ISI must become an agency for the people. The ISI must foster democratic, transparent, and intellectual growth within its walls. These suggestions would allow Pakistan to bridge the gap between its citizens and the state institutions meant to protect their interests. When the people are prioritised, we can expect more cooperation from them, and a more honourable face for the ISI.

The ISI should be a symbol of pride and not an institution which is despised.

Shahzeb Shaikha

Shahzeb Shaikha

A staffer at The Express Tribune who is a graduate in the field of Security Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He tweets @shahzebshaikha (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • HT

    Do CIA and RAW considers the laws in which they operate so why should ISI do the tht…….what a blank thought…if you are so worried about laws then try to write and improve such laws in Pakistan which dont allow terrorist to be freed after they are caught because there was no one available as witness………Pakistani consitiution is itself falwed with people like corrupted and charged leaders runnning the country…what are ur laws worth at,Recommend

  • PostMan

    Considering what CIA has been doing all around the world and what Mossad does without a remorse – ISI has just a very bad PR.Recommend

  • TightDhoti

    Yawn! You have the audacity to make recommendations to the ISI? Dont you know we will all make comparisons with CIA-MOSSAD-RAW without having any knowledge about the laws within which they operate. Zaid Hamids words of “wisdom” is what we go on. Then again, ISI should just get on with their job, or do they need to win a popularity contest as well. Recommend

  • zahid habib

    I think some of the suggestions are very good. As to teaching by the retired ISI colleagues and bringingin young blood and civil miltary coapratin in this field.Recommend

  • Atif Sheikh

    ISI and Pakistan Army were never defamed as much as under leadership of Gen.Kiyani and during current govt tenure under Zardari.Recommend

  • My Name is Khan

    The simple difference is that other nation’s intelligence agencies act in the interest of their people. The ISI does not. It acts in the interest of itself and the Armed Forces. Other intelligence agencies don’t go around killing journalists and threatening members of their diaspora (see NYT article from Sunday, July 24th).

    Furthermore, the ISI’s training and support for terrorists as “strategic assets” has backfired greatly.

    For Pakistan to have a respectable intelligence agency, the ISI must be dismantled and replaced with civilian leadership. Recommend

  • hamza khan

    @My Name is Khan:

    you need to be dismantled and replaced. Recommend

  • Salman Arshad

    Completely agree with MNIK.

    The absolutely guaranteed way for the ISI to save itself and be detrimental for Pakistan itself, is to fundamentally and completely restructure itself as a civilian organization.

    The only other way for it to survive as is, is ON the cost to Pakistan’s survival itself, and that is by continuing its current role of governing Pakistan.
    ISI has been making its own decisions as to what is “better” for Pakistan since its inception, and we are on the brink of collapse because of that. Unfortunately its the most powerful organization, so there is almost no possibility to mend its ways.Recommend

  • Imran

    Sheikha yaar, mazaq na kar!Recommend

  • Ahmad

    Why does the ISI even have its own media wing? What is the function of ISPR? All army reports on active wars and operations that need to be disseminated to the media should be done by the Interior Ministry. All the ISPR does is make drama serials with media companies to fix its own very rightly tarnished image. It should be dismantled. Period. How many intelligence agencies do we need? MI, ISI, IB, and the list goes on.Recommend

  • PostMan

    No secret agency works within the laws. One has to be really naive to assume this. The secret agencies do not care about the ‘knowledge of the laws within which they operate’! CIA made fool of the whole US (excluding govt) by claiming Iraq had WMD. Mossad operates in other countries for assassination missions! RAW was actively involved in East Pakistan.

    CIA engineered coups all over the world overthrowing elected governments. It put dictators as heads resulting in deaths of thousands of people. Oh! but it does not kill its own people right?! Since this is the ‘goodness’ criteria of a covert intelligence agency. Read more about Project MKULTRA where CIA used US and Canadian citizens for its tests. But CIA still gets away because ‘hey! they did not kill them you know!’

    What is needed is an oversight of the activities of ISI. Understand what it means by ‘What ISI does’ and ‘How ISI is stopped’. Recommend

  • Rsingh

    As far the image of ISI is concerned it is rock solid in Pakistan, globally image of ISI has taken a heavy dent. The author of article should bother about the image of Pakistani army which is at all time low globally as well as Domestically.
    Now if ISI wants to improve its image then it needs stop training and funding terrorist who kill innocent civilians all over the world and specially in India. But this is simply impossible since this ISI’s main job.
    ISI should be banned and had the author had any concern for Pakistan he would also advocated this. Globally the main duty of security agencies is protecting their countries , this is what CIA,RAW,MOSSAD does and where as ISI has been totally inefficient in protecting Pakistani civilians from bomb blast and suicide bombing which has become a norm in Pakistan. All these bombing have greatly damaged Pakistani economy but for ISI these are not areas of concern since they don’t work for Pakistan, they work for American,Saudis and Chinese.ISI is not for Pakistan , Pakistan is for ISI and the Army, at the end i can only say.

  • Mustafa

    There is no need for the ISI to work strictly according to Pakistani laws. No intelligence agency does so, in fact, doing so would make them much less effective. In the end, intelligence is supposed to be performing those operations that officially shouldn’t even exist. So to demand that they be working according to Pakistani law, or any other law, is very naive.Recommend

  • Mustafa

    @My Name is Khan:
    US government itself has openly arrested media personalities who have condoned 9/11 or certain other actions, and the people never spoke up. That is because there was a degree of responsibility to these people, they know that freedom does not mean speaking against their own government. Our media does that, in fact, our main television channels seem to exist solely for that purpose, so the ISI does what it has to.
    With regard to the different intelligence agencies, they all have different purposes, do research it, its quite interesting.Recommend

  • Shahzeb Shaikha

    The ISI’s image is rock solid in Pakistan, I absolutetly disagree. I think you don’t follow Pakistan as closely to comment rationally on it.

    The CIA never, never, has violated US laws. As far as international law or laws of other countries are concerned, that has never been their concerned, and I have rightly pointed that out.

    “While carrying out its activities, the ISI should consult legal counsels to ensure it doesn’t violate Pakistani laws. But the laws of other countries don’t require the same consideration”

    Overthrowing governments abroad does not violate US laws. Nor did sabotaging violate Indian laws. But in order for the sanctity of the constitution and local laws, it is essential for intelligence agencies to operate within the ambit of the home country laws.

    Do your research first before giving misleading opinions. It creates further misperceptions.Recommend

  • Bakr

    Defending the indefensible. Aren’t you?Recommend

  • Dundaa

    @My name is Khan – Yaar, you need to shape up or ship out. Recommend

  • PostMan

    @Shahzeb Shaikha: ‘The CIA never, never, has violated US laws.’

    Yeah because now they employ BlackWater and other mercenaries for this purpose. In project MKULTRA they used US and Canadian people as guinea pigs. They have been involved in ‘illegal’ surveillance of countless number of US citizens. So ‘never’ has been breached more than once. It seems like you will be ok with ISI if it too hires Xe as its contract agents.

    I repeat. No intelligence agency gives a hoot about the laws in which they operate. They have to be properly supervised. ISI needs the same control. If it is involved in the killibng of Saleem Shahzad, then heads must roll. Its imperative that structural changes or more supervisory role be established.Recommend

  • Awais Khan

    The intelligence agency is surely in turmoil right now and it will have to take some action to bring itself together. The war on terror is in its defining stage and the confrontation between Pakistan and U.S. has greatly affected it.Recommend

  • malik

    For those who have tuned in late, the news has just come in that Mr Fai has admitted to receiving millions from ISI.

    Now, get ready for the press releases from ISPR, terming this as a US conspiracy to destabilize Pakistan and to remove the nukes.Recommend

  • Muhammad Bilal Iftikhar Khan

    Friends will always love ISI and Enemies have thousands of reasons to hate it and be afraid of it. The comments of Indian reader clearly manifest that ISI is best amongst best.
    Tose who shout about ISI forget Mukti Bahni , LTTE etc

    ISI consist of Best minds Pakistan have. At present when Afghan end game is nearing all those who want to their will to be implemented in the region for safe guard of their future energy and strategic interests think ISI the biggest hurdle in way of their imperial ambitions.

    ISI is ISI it will keep on protecting the national interests of Pakistan weather people like it or not. Those who criticize it should first see what GREAT THINGS their own agencies are doing and have done in Past.
    As for Desi Goras Learn to respect your own selves and your home. You are filled with inferiority complex. you learn about ur self from Indian or westren media the start hateing ur own selves .Those who are not loyal to their home dont have respect any whereRecommend