When I entered journalism in November 1992, one of the first things that I learned in the newsroom was that its telephones were being tapped by intelligence agencies. “So be careful when you talk to someone on the phone,” one of the seniors informed me. It was a terrifying as well as fascinating fact for me: someone was always listening when you were talking on the phone! Telephones and faxes were the latest telecom technology in use in newspaper offices in those days, and telephone tapping was the most ubiquitous fact of social life in Islamabad.
In 1993 and then in 1996, I got the chance to cover cases of dissolution of national assemblies in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif and then Benazir Bhutto had challenged the presidential order in the apex court. Wiretapping or telephone tapping was one of the more talked-about issues in both the cases in court. It was revealed that judges, politicians, bureaucrats and journalists all were under surveillance through telephone tapping.
We young journalists were so terrified by the possibility of our little secrets coming out in the open that we were always reluctant to discuss our private lives on phone, even with our colleagues. In the year 1999—the year of the coup—I got engaged to a young lady from Lahore (I am still married to her!). Dating your fiancée was newly becoming fashionable in those days in middle-class families like mine. But the problem was that I only got the chance to visit Lahore once a month due to the meagre salary that I was getting from the newspaper that I worked for. The alternative was to talk with your fiancée every evening on the phone: those were the days when old fashioned cell phones were becoming common. My friends, however, advised me that I should not talk to my fiancée on the landline. Their argument was that I was under surveillance and my bedroom phone line was being tapped. “If you want to avoid scandalisation of your private conversation with your fiancée, get her a cell phone but never talk to her on the landline,” their argument used to run.
My friends were under the wrong impression that cell phones couldn’t be tapped. What actually transpired in the form of the telecom revolution was the privatisation of the process of phone tapping. Now, the tools to wiretap a landline or cell phone could be purchased off the shelf in some of the Western countries, especially the United States.
One of the country’s newly appointed spy chiefs in the 1990s was under a similarly mistaken impression as my friends had been – and when some of his subordinates presented him his private conversation on a cell phone, he was said to have expressed his anger by smashing his phone on the nearest wall. Those were the times when phone tapping was romanticised as a fact that could give a boost to your political standing in the society. So, the news items in the newspapers containing the lists of those whose phones were being tapped were followed by some chest-thumping.
Today, of course, all these incidents read like tales from the Stone Age. What was then a technology only in the possession of some overly powerful intelligence agencies is now so ubiquitous and diffused that anyone could get their hand on it. Intelligence sleuths are dependent on computer hackers to get into the laptops of their targets. Even that appears outdated by now. Only a few years back Israeli technology firm, NSO Group produced a software by the name of Pegasus that “gives an operator near-total access to a target’s personal data.” Pegasus software is now being used by intelligence agencies across the world—democracies, autocracies, kingdoms and military dictatorships, no matter what the form of government. Intelligence agencies across the world are using Pegasus to tackle the problem of end-to-end encryption that had in the past prevented them from getting access to the data in a target’s cell phone, personal computer or laptop. “First, spyware takes advantage of a global digital culture that is shaped around always-on, always-connected smartphones. By hacking a personal device, spyware can provide its operators with a user’s entire pattern of life in real time. Second, spyware offers security agencies an elegant way to circumvent end-to-end encryption, which has become a growing barrier to government mass surveillance programs that depend on the collection of telecommunications and Internet data. By getting inside a user’s device, spyware allows its operators to read messages or listen to calls before they have been encrypted or after they have been decrypted; if the user can see it on the screen, so can the spyware,” reads a recent report in America’s influential Foreign Affairs magazine on the subject.
There is no indication so far that Pakistani intelligence services have acquired this spyware. The only time that Islamabad officialdom acknowledged the existence of this spyware was in July 2021, when a report appeared in some international news outlet that former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cell phone was under surveillance using Pegasus spyware. However, if Pakistani intelligence agencies decide to acquire this software or if they have already acquired it, the cost would not have been an obstacle. It costs less than a million dollars in the international market, which is a pittance if compared to the multi-million-dollar budgets of our intelligence community.
The Pakistani intelligence community is not that backward technologically when it comes to eavesdropping and electronic surveillance. The post-9/11 US-Pakistan military and intelligence cooperation provided Pakistani intelligence with enough spying gear and electronic gadgets to make them one of the most modern intelligence services in the world. During Musharraf’s period—the peak years of the War against Terror—Pakistan’s military government enjoyed enough influence in the corridors of power in Washington D.C. to prevent the US State Department from releasing the details of spy gear being provided to Pakistani intelligence services.
There should be no doubt that spying and espionage are the handmaidens of statecraft. However, in the last 20 years of ‘war against terror,’ what we have witnessed is the process of “Intelligensifation” of Pakistani state and military top brass. This is a process under whose influence the state machinery and military top brass started thinking and acting like spymasters or started seeing social, political realities and security situations from the perspective of spymasters. Intelligence was the most important tool of the Pakistani state struggling with two insurgencies in the north-west and south-west of the country. In the past five years, Pakistani police, military and paramilitary have conducted more than 30,000 operations against terrorists and military, what in the official terminology is often dubbed as “Intelligence Based Operations” (IBOs). In such an operation, the intelligence agencies decide the size and weapons of the force to be used against militants. And it also decides when, where and how the operation would be launched.
Some observers say that we had already witnessed a process of the militarisation of intelligence agencies, wherein military personnel started to man the intelligence agencies. “Now what we are witnessing is the intelligensification of military and state machinery,” said a former official in a background interview. General Bajwa’s personality was the finest product of this process—he used to launch detailed diatribes against fifth-columnists who were engaged in “fifth-generation warfare” against the state. Here lies the distinction between a purely military mindset and the mindset of a spymaster. A purely military man will never talk against any segment or group of his countrymen — the reason for this is that he is not in the business of peeping into people’s private thoughts and hidden life, which is the forte of spymasters. A military man would always restrict his assertions to what is happening on the surface. A spymaster, by contrast, would not speak in public, but whenever he will speak, it would be about what is happening behind the curtains.
Our current COAS is the second former DG ISI who is now occupying the office of Army Chief in less than 15 years. General Kiyani had also served as DG ISI before his appointment as Army chief.
The first problem to consider in Pakistan’s context is that spy work often leads spymasters to develop certain patterns of thought—such myopic visions, if adopted by public office holders, could prove disastrous.
Secondly, if spying becomes the basis of public policy, it could prove to be very divisive for society. Spymasters are biased and develop a dislike for political groups and segments of society because they know the hidden lives and planning of these people. These biases are formed on the basis of tidbits gathered from spying on people’s private lives – and they ought not to become the basis of public policy. An ordinary mind will always rely on the spy master’s version of what is happening in the society, leading to permanent divisions in the society.
So, a case can be made that public policy should be primarily based on what is happening on the surface.