Pakistan’s ISI comes in from the cold

In its own land, Pakistan’s notorious and feared spy agency, the ISI, is viewed with awe and dread. Now it is opening up — a little — to Western journalists.

The entrance is suitably discreet: a single barrier near a small hospital off a busy Islamabad highway. Bougainvillea spills over long walls with barbed wire; a plain-clothes man packing a pistol questions visitors. Further along, soldiers emerge to check for bombs.

Then a giant electric gate slides back to reveal a sleek grey building that would not look out of place on a California technology campus. With one difference: nothing is sign-posted.

Welcome to the headquarters of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, Pakistan’s premier spy agency. Powerful and notorious in equal measure, for decades the ISI has operated behind a dense veil of secrecy, impervious to allegations of election rigging, terrorist training, abduction and assassination. Many Pakistanis call it the “state within a state”.

Now, though, the ISI is coming in from the cold. Over the past year the agency has invited a stream of Western journalists into its swish, modern nerve centre. Over tea and PowerPoint briefings, spies give details of some of Pakistan’s most sensitive issues – the Taliban insurgency, the hunt for al-Qaeda, the troubled relationship with India.

“We’ve started to open up a little,” said an ISI official authorised to speak to the press. “In the past, irrespective of whether we did something, we were getting blamed for it. Now we want to reach out and get our point of view across.”

Yet rehabilitating the ISI’s image would tax the most inventive spin doctor. For 30 years its covert operations have been at the sharp end of Pakistani policy, supporting Islamist extremists fighting Indian soldiers in Kashmir, and boosting the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.

At home the agency is viewed with awe and dread. It is the eyes and ears of military power, with huge phone and email monitoring capability and a wide network of informers.

Some Pakistanis refer to its agents — who often wear white shalwar kameez — as “the angels”. Under President Pervez Musharraf they abducted hundreds of people, some of whom were allegedly tortured.

Recently, though, it has been the agency’s turn to be on the receiving end.

Last May suicide bombers hit an ISI office in Lahore, killing a colonel; in the tribal areas militants have killed 57 agents and wounded 86. Security is tight at the Islamabad headquarters, where last month the ISI asked its next-door neighbour — the city authority — to move to another neighbourhood.

Influencing the local press has always been part of ISI operations, usually through bribes, blandishments or intimidation. But it rarely reached out to the foreign press, until now.

“This is totally unprecedented,” said Stephen Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution policy research organisation in Washington. “It seems to be part of a new openness in the military. They’re worried about caricatures of Pakistan, especially in the foreign press, such as people saying the country is going to break up in three months.”

The briefings, which take place about once a week, belie the agency’s gritty image. Reporters are shepherded into a wood-panelled conference room with soft armchairs, a long table and a wall-mounted screen.

Officials in business suits, who could pass for middle management in any company, introduce themselves without full name or job title.

During the interview liveried servants ferry in trays of tea and fried snacks, served on ISI crockery. Smoking is allowed.

Officials speak openly, but journalists expecting them to gush state secrets may be disappointed. Every talk is carefully vetted in advance. “We’re opening up but it’s not a total glasnost,” said the unofficial spokesperson.

Circles within circles
The ajar-door policy got off to a rocky start last year when the newly appointed ISI chief, Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha, told Der Spiegel that the Taliban had a right to “freedom of opinion”. The agency later said he misspoke. Now, though, it is paying dividends. Two weeks ago a front-page lead in the New York Times, highlighting Pakistani concerns with the US military surge in Afghanistan, was sourced from an ISI briefing.

The agency was pleased. “That was the first time [the journalist] carried both sides of the argument,” said the ISI official. “I think we are getting there.”

The bolder media policy is part of a wider global trend. The CIA and MI6 have always maintained relationships with selected journalists, an engagement whose importance has increased amid the furore over torture and abduction allegations.

For journalists, the challenge is to sift fact from propaganda. In a recent briefing to the Guardian, ISI officials suggested Indian officials had orchestrated last November’s Mumbai attacks. The Indians wanted to cover up an investigation into Hindu extremism, they said.

Days later Ajmal Kasab, the only surviving gunman from the massacre, told an Indian court how he had been trained by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani jihadi outfit with links to the ISI.

In the briefing the ISI also accused New Delhi of supplying arms and explosives to the Pakistan Taliban, even though the Taliban has killed Indians inside Afghanistan.

“Circles within circles,” said an ISI official when asked to explain the apparent contradictions. “It makes an excellent plot for a Le Carré novel.”

Western officials quietly support some ISI contentions, such as covert Indian support for nationalist rebels in Baluchistan. But more than anything the briefings reveal how the ISI’s world view is framed by its decades-old enmity with India.

“They tell you a lot about themselves even when they don’t know it,” said Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA official, Obama adviser and trenchant ISI critic. The contradiction at the heart of agency policy, he said, is its support for Islamist militants: “That can’t be removed by clever briefings.”

Still, the old cliches about the spy collective being a “state within a state” or a “rogue agency” are out of date. These days it is said to be firmly in the grip of the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, who previously ran the agency for three years.

But the new openness does underscore the country’s fragile balance of power. Two weeks ago the Hindu reported that the ISI’s Pasha had invited Indian diplomats to deal with him directly, bypassing President Asif Ali Zardari’s government.

“Formally, Zardari has a lot of power. But on the ground he’s not too strong right now,” said analyst and newspaper editor Najam Sethi.

Despite its new openness, the ISI remains in the shadows. One question stands out: as well as improving its image, is it ready to really change its stripes? At headquarters, nobody can give a straight answer. Circles within circles, as they say. —

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