Coordinating National Intelligence

Coordinating National Intelligence
Reports suggest that Prime Minister Imran Khan has approved the formation of a National Intelligence Coordination Committee (NICC). The committee will be headed by the Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (DGI) who will function as its chair.

The ostensible reason for setting up such a coordination committee is to improve (as the name suggests) coordination among several intelligence agencies. As one report put it, quoting sources: “The move is part of the long-awaited reform of the intelligence apparatus, which aims at clarifying the role of respective agencies, improving their coordination, and optimising their capabilities.”

Most observers agree that effective coordination has been the weakest link in Pakistan’s counterterrorism and counterintelligence efforts since the so-called war on terror began some two decades ago. The lack of coordination has often resulted in delays in collating and analysing information, disseminating it through the web of the intelligence community and ensuring last-mile distribution and action.

Given this, the formation of such a committee should be welcome. If it seeks to improve efficiency, reduced time to relay information and results in quicker coordinated action, we are all set.

If only. Let’s consider.

This is not the first time a government has tried something like this. In fact, only last year in March, the Ministry of Interior issued a notification for establishing a National Intelligence Committee, which was also meant to improve coordination within the ambit of the MoI. There have been efforts by previous governments too — we aren’t debating whether they were well- or ill-conceived. Nothing came of them. Hence, the NICC.

Coordination is not a simple function. You cannot improve coordination by simply putting together a committee! Put another way, setting up a committee is not akin to waving a magic wand that will wish away the many problems that cause lack of coordination in the first place.

What it means is that unless the government has studied the problem and the many factors that cause it, which I doubt highly, putting the heads of several intel agencies in one room won’t produce the desired result. If anything, putting the DGI as the lead is likely to increase rather than decrease intra-agency rivalry.

Organisations often work in a complex and uncertain environment. This is truer of intel organisations. Studies have shown that to cope with complexity, the organisation also grows complex: multiple departments/sections dealing with complex operations and performing compartmentalised functions. The idea is for all subsets to work in a way that can then be collated and structured. Instead, it often creates opacity. So even when the different parts toil to optimise their functions, doing different things, it becomes difficult to put the Humpty-Dumpty together. Results can clash, uncertainty increases requiring more information, decisions get delayed even when activity increases.

This is about one organisation. Replicate it when you put together several with reasons for intra-agency rivalries and you can be certain that the confusion will be compounded.

Furthermore, of all the intel agencies operating in the country, the ISI has already emerged, over the years, as the most powerful. While technically the DGI reports to the prime minister, de facto he holds office at the pleasure of the Chief of Army Staff. That skews the ISI’s work in favour of GHQ, rather than PMO. At any given point, the COAS will have more information than the PM.

Unlike most other agencies, the ISI combines in itself the twin functions of external, strategic intelligence and internal, counterintelligence and counterterrorism. To complicate things even more, it combines in one body intelligence collection, analysis, policymaking and implementation. Add to that many other internal policy functions it has appropriated over the years and we have a colossus that towers over other intel agencies. To have the head of ISI (a stakeholder) to chair the coordination committee is to (a) defeat the very purpose of independent assessment of incoming intel and (b) reduce other intel agencies to becoming subsets of ISI.

Put another way, to create such a committee and make the DGI its chair is to ask other intel agencies to surrender whatever little independent operational space they might still enjoy. Anyone who has read organisation theory would tell the government that such a committee will be a non-starter. We already have NACTA (National Counterterrorism Authority), a body that was put together with much fanfare but now lies all but defunct. [NB: apparently, NACTA is also to come under the NICC.]

The crucial requirement is to find the causal nexus. But that’s also the most unclear and difficult to unravel. In his book, The Art of Action, Stephen Bangey says: “Are people searching for more information and avoiding decisions because of the complexity of the environment? Or is the search for information creating complexity and rendering decision making more difficult? Or is the difficulty of taking decisions leading to the search for more information and creating more complexity?”

Is there a “hierarchy of cause and effect” or do we have “a set of reciprocal relations within a system: every cause is also an effect and vice versa.” If it’s the latter, which is what happens in a complex system, then finding linear cause-and-effect solutions are unlikely to work.

Then there’s the problem of the number of intel agencies Pakistan has. Do creating layers of agencies actually work? Take the case of Iran. That country is a highly securitised state with multiple layers of intel agencies. And yet, going by how hit squads have been able to take out protected targets on Iranian territory, it seems as if increasing the numbers may not result in optimisation; in fact, it may result in sub-optimal performance — especially, where there are also lopsided hierarchical relations among the different layers.

So, while we get to improving coordination, perhaps the starting point should be studying the plethora of agencies to see whether they are actually required. If, for instance, we find that out of nearly two dozen such agencies, at least 12 (supposed number) can be done away with, we will have already moved closer towards improving coordination.

Secondly, the government must understand that every organisation develops its own culture, worldview, organisational interests etc. And it guards them. That is a major reason for organisations ‘satisficing’ (to use Graham Allison’s term) instead of optimising.

Studies of western intelligence agencies have shown that they have grown beyond their optimal size; budgets are bloated; interests have expanded; rivalries have increased. To top it, given the secretive nature of the work they do, oversight has become a major problem. This is about systems of governance where legislatures have much better oversight mechanisms. In Pakistan, with its lopsided civil-military relations (hybrid or non-hybrid), absence of any oversight and no mechanism for independent inquiry, intelligence agencies already play an oversized role without any accountability.

This is a long discussion and we haven’t really delved into other aspects of intel work and organisation that make coordination difficult. The point of this broad overview is simple: the government, as always, is going in for an easy, linear solution that will add another layer (with budgets/interests etc.) without solving the problem for which it is forming a committee. Over time, this committee too will become defunct while continuing to draw a budget (like NACTA) until another government comes along and sets up another body along the same lines without addressing the real problems.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times with interest in defence and security affairs. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.