NICC Formation: A Flawed Decision

The NICC decision has been taken in secrecy, behind the back of the parliament and probably also without inputs and consultation with other intelligence agencies, writes Farhautllah Babar

NICC Formation: A Flawed Decision
Three days ago, Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly approved the setting up of the National Intelligence Coordination Committee (NICC) to coordinate working of the over two dozen intelligence agencies in the country. It will be led by the DG ISI and the existing National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) would also be part of and answerable to it. The decision is stated to be part of the long-awaited reform of intelligence apparatus. As the headline report has not been denied, it is reasonable to believe that the decision to set up a super intelligence organization under a military outfit has indeed been taken.

Improving coordination among several intelligence agencies has engaged the attention of various governments from time to time. The last such effort was made by Benazir Bhutto when, within months of taking over as prime minister, she appointed in March 1989 a commission to review the working of ISI, IB, provincial special branches and Airports Security Force, among others.

Benazir Bhutto was seriously concerned about the involvement of some intelligence agencies in political and electoral manipulations and unauthorized telephone tapping and saw no place for it a democratic structure. She knew that all intelligence agencies in advanced countries whether in the US, Canada, France, Germany or Britain were regulated by statutes duly legislated and believed that statutory regulations were needed to rein in the intelligence agencies in Pakistan.

The decision to appoint the commission was publicly announced. Headed by late Air Chief Marshal Zulfiqar Ali Khan, the commission submitted its report but it has remained unimplemented. Nothing has been heard about it since then and no one knows what happened to its recommendations. To give vent to her frustration a decade later, Benazir Bhutto cryptically commented, “Security apparatus has run amok.”

The NICC decision has been taken in secrecy, behind the back of the parliament and probably also without inputs and consultation with other intelligence agencies and stakeholders.

The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) was formed under an Act of the Parliament in 2010 as “an independent body answerable directly to the prime minister,” who is also the chairman of its board of governors. Section 4 of the Act defines one of its functions as “to receive and collate data or information or intelligence.” Section 5 of the Act stated that DG ISI, DG MI, DG IB, DG FIA along with senior officials were to be members of its board of governors.

NACTA, however, now will be merged in the NICC and made answerable to the ISI head. How can an executive order override a law passed by the parliament?

Intelligence agencies have tended to act as a law unto them. They are averse to be brought under the control of anyone, be that legislature or executive or by any other intelligence agency. In July 2008, the then prime minister notified the placement of ISI and IB under the “administrative, financial and operational control” of the Interior Ministry. The decision was resented by one of the intelligence organizations and had to be reversed within 24 hours.

How can NACTA, a statutory body formed under an Act of Parliament, be placed under the ISI through an executive order? More so, as the ISI itself operates beyond the ambit of any legislation. A question asked in the Senate sometime back whether ISI operated under any law and to provide a copy of the same was promptly rejected and a curt reply sent to the Senator that said that the information could not be provided because it was “secret and sensitive.”

When sometime back the issue came up before the Supreme Court during hearing of a case of missing persons, the government took the plea that administrative and financial matters of ISI were under the Defence Ministry “but not its operations.” Who controls its operations and what are the boundaries, parameters and limitations of such operations no one knows and has never been spelt out. No wonder the cry of “state within state.”

This indeed is the most serious problem. In any democratic and civilized order such vast, arbitrary and unchecked powers that violate the basic rights of the people is totally unacceptable. The remedy is immediate enactment of an appropriate law that lays down the parameters of functions within which the intelligence agency must confine its operations.

Enforced disappearances in the country continue with impunity, with the blame mostly placed at the door of an intelligence agency. A major reason for this is the absence of any law to regulate functioning of state agencies. The Commission on Enforced Disappearances takes pride in tracing nearly 3,000 missing persons during the past decade. But it has abysmally failed to investigate a single case of disappearance and expose those involved, even though the law requires it to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators.

The minutes of the meeting of Senate Human Rights Committee held on August 28, 2018, which was also open to the media and public and attended by the Chairman of the Commission make a startling disclosure: “The Commission was apprised that action had been taken against 153 Army personnel (involved in enforced disappearances).” There was, however, deafening silence about who those 153 army personnel were and what action had actually been taken against them.

Empowering the ISI further through an executive order and without bringing it under some legislation will spell disaster for citizens’ liberties and human rights. The NICC decision taken secretly in the executive domain is patently illegal, seriously flawed and highly dangerous and must be reversed.

The writer is a former senator