Pakistan’s ruling alliance has questioned Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s decision to empower the spy agency – Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – to conduct verification of all government officers before their induction, appointments, and postings, as well as promotions.
The Sharif government issued a notification on Friday to give the status of a Special Vetting Agency (SVA) to the ISI. The decision angered not just the allies but also his own Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
The ISI is Pakistan’s powerful spy agency. In 1950, it was officially given the task of safeguarding Pakistani interests and national security, inside and outside the country.
Some members belonging to allied parties even criticized Prime Minister Sharif for not taking the coalition partners and parliament into confidence, vowing to take the matter to the court, The Express Tribune newspaper has reported.
They quipped that the premier should also consider including politicians in the notification as “most of the traitors” were there.
”This has been done behind the back of coalition partners and parliament,” Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) General-Secretary Farhatullah Babar said, asking why the decision was taken as it is not a single-party government.
In a tweet, Babar said that the decision must be unacceptable to many coalition partners, and they must protest to reverse it, adding that unilateral alteration in civil service rules must be challenged.
Babar noted that the agency that “failed to detect Osama bin Laden hiding in Abbottabad” has been tasked with reporting on the competence and professionalism of civil servants. He urged everyone to say no to the decision as it was ”unacceptable”.
PML-N former information minister Pervaiz Rashid also questioned the move in a tweet, saying if the task of investigating civilian officers was included in ISI’s responsibilities, then the spy agency should also be placed under civilian control and be accountable to the parliament.
PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar chided the premier on tasking the intelligence agency to vet government officers by “requesting” that Sharif include all public office holders in the notification at once.
”Why discriminate against politicians?” Khokhar asked, adding that “after all, traitors are more common in our ranks”.
Khokhar was referring to the notification’s part where it used the words verification and screening of all public office holders but then added the words “officers’ category” in brackets.
Similarly, PPP leader Mian Raza Rabbani also said that the notification issued by the federal government, declaring the ISI as the SVA, was “surprising”.
“The verification and screening of all civil servants before their induction, appointments, postings, and promotions by the SVA amount to ceding civilian space,” Rabbani said. Given the situation on the eastern and western borders, the Afghan situation, Kashmir, internal terrorism, and other related issues, he said, the additional task will be overburdening it.
“It also blurs the distinction between the civil and military bureaucracy as well as lack of confidence in the civilian apparatus of the state,” Rabbani maintained, saying the 1973 Constitution and the Civil Servants Act, 1973, as amended by parliament, is a comprehensive law.
“They do not require such screening of civil servants,” he said. “The courts have in some judgments disregarded intelligence reports in such matters.” Besides, he added, the civil servants were already working under the pressure of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) law.
An official of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) said that the decision was surprising for the party too as no discussion had taken place in the party meetings on the issue.
The Express Tribune also reported some bureaucrats as saying that the spy agency with the special status and powers would keep an eye on the moral and financial affairs of the government officers and would submit details to the promotion boards, especially the high-powered board and Central Selection Board (CSB).
Previously, they said, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) was performing the vetting process. Some politicians and government officers, requesting not to be named, said that the government’s move surprised many as several parties in the coalition government used to oppose the interference of the intelligence agencies in the government’s affairs before coming into power.
However, after coming into power, they said, they have done exactly the opposite and, in fact, helped enhance the spy agency’s control over the bureaucracy and governmental affairs.
Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb was also asked to share her views, but she did not comment.
The opposition also questioned the move, with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Fawad Chaudhry voicing his concerns over the matter.
Fawad 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”.
”The institution (ISI) has to think about what role it wants to play in Pakistan’s politics. A discussion is needed on the new roles of civil institutions and institutions after the media revolution,” he added.