"God’s work," we used to call it, as I’m sure my successors still do. The phrase was employed by CIA operatives to describe their tasks with an intended sense of puckish irony, as many would no doubt be surprised, if not scandalized, at the notion that the skullduggery of a foreign intelligence service might be performed in service of the Deity. But behind such irony - indeed inseparable from it - was the sincere notion that the covert activities of the CIA could and should be a force for good. For if history had decreed that the US would play a great role on the world stage, surely its decisions should be informed by the best information available, including that which can only be had by spies.
History also tells us that the covert capabilities of the CIA, like those of the intelligence services of other powers, both great and small, have often been used to influence public opinion and events in sovereign foreign countries. The use of such means is usually extolled or excoriated according to one’s appreciation of the ends to which, and the circumstances in which, they are exercised. The same observers who celebrate the role of the CIA in providing the money and support which permitted frail democratic parties in post-World War II Western Europe to prevail over better-organized and -funded communists, might take a different view of CIA’s role in encouraging the public protests which swept the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mossadegh from power in 1953 Tehran.
In most countries, the idea of foreign attempts to influence public policy is anathema. But in Washington, a whole different set of rules apply. The world may not, thankfully, be close to genuine global governance, but in the interim, the US Congress - and not the UN – is the closest thing to it that we are likely to get for some time. So great is America’s perceived weight on issues deemed of critical importance to foreign governments, on everything from trade policy, to military sales, to human rights, to the dictates of the World Bank and the IMF, that a sizeable industry has grown up around their efforts to influence it.
Today there exist in Washington over 2,500 registered agents offering their lobbying services, quite legally, to foreign governments. And for the best among them, such services do not come cheaply.
Influencing US public policy
These seemingly disparate thoughts come to mind in light of the latest scandal, breathlessly splashed on the front page of the New York Times, concerning the alleged 20-year effort of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the infamous ISI, to influence US public opinion and public policy. Without knowing any more, the mind would reel to imagine the nefarious purposes to which such a covert influence campaign might have been put over the past two decades: Suborning lawmakers and opinion leaders in support of Pakistani nuclear weapons development efforts in the 1990s perhaps, or maybe blackmailing strident pre-9/11 opponents of the Afghan Taliban. But no: The real purpose behind this campaign of Pakistani black arts was – (Here the gentle reader may wish to avert her eyes) - championing the cause of self-determination for Kashmiris.
Even if guilty as charged, would that the ISI might have had some small measure of success. The US, which has never been willing to do more than repeat sterile formulas in favour of a negotiated settlement in Kashmir, has not been willing in recent years even to do that, such is its lust for a "strategic relationship" with India. And if American officials harbour any sympathy for the abused human rights of Kashmiris living under the India boot, they do a good job of hiding it; indeed, one looks in vain for even the rote expressions of concern from Secretary of State Clinton on her recent visit to New Delhi that senior US officials reserve, intermittently at least, for the Chinese government regarding its political dissidents, or Tibet. It might well be remembered that self determination of peoples has long been a stock principle of US diplomacy, even if it is very selectively applied. God’s work, indeed.
But now that indictments against two American citizens, Zaheer Ahmad and Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, have been handed down with great fanfare, we can see what these two sinister tools of the ISI have been up to. In the words of the federal prosecutor, Mr. Fai, head of the Kashmiri American Council and a well-known advocate for Kashmiri rights, has funded "high-profile conferences and [paid] for other efforts that promoted the Kashmiri cause to decision-makers in Washington." Goodness.
Lack of paperwork
In short, he has been doing what virtually all advocacy groups do in Washington. His sole violation, in this respect at least, has been to fail to file the necessary paperwork to declare himself an agent of a foreign government, and thus formally join his 2,500 counterparts. Perhaps Mr. Fai and his alleged ISI handlers feared a marginal loss in the credibility of their otherwise unexceptional efforts if Mr. Fai’s true sponsorship were known. If so, as is often the case in Washington, it was not the non-existent "crime" which was important, but the effort to cover it up.
Somewhat more seriously, Syed Ghulam and others were allegedly reimbursed by the government of Pakistan for their otherwise normal political campaign contributions. In the case of the head of the Kashmiri American Council head himself, these declared contributions amounted to some $20,000 over two decades, which, if my arithmetic does not fail me, amounts to an average of a thousand dollars a year. Far from bribing or suborning opinion leaders and lawmakers, he and perhaps another 10 "straw donors" made paltry campaign contributions, entirely conforming to the rules regarding such donations, and had their bequests to the Kashmiri American Council reimbursed through the agency of the Government of Pakistan.
Yes, even casinos have rules, and the rules in this case appear to have been systematically broken. But at a time when Washington politics is awash in special-interest cash, when the President himself managed to collect some $86m for both his upcoming campaign and for his party in just the past three months alone, when wealthy campaign "bundlers" are rewarded with political favours for organising groups of their well-heeled friends to make political contributions en masse, it is a bit hard to get worked up over these almost pathetically marginal efforts to raise awareness of the plight of Kashmiris. Presumably, advocates for the redoubtable US India Political Action Committee have no need to engage in such subterfuges.
I am usually the last to subscribe to conspiracy theories, but it is hard to suppose that the timing of this case has nothing to do with the current feud between the ISI and its American counterpart. No doubt, the discovery of undeclared foreign intelligence activities in the US makes for a useful talking point in the context of Pakistani demands for greater visibility into US intelligence activities in their country. But none of us should be fooled into thinking that this latest tempest in a teapot is anything other than what it is: a distraction.
There are important policy issues which divide Pakistan from its American ally, and which need urgently to be addressed. These run the gamut from the future of Afghanistan, to the campaign against militants within Pakistan itself, to the international depredations of such groups as Lashkar-e Taiba, to, yes, the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Americans and Pakistanis need to devote their efforts toward the resolution of these issues and others as well if they are to find a cooperative way forward to address their many overlapping national security interests. Neither can succeed without the other. To get to that place, they will need to focus on the fundamentals, and not be distracted by the intelligence wars which result from the efforts of both sides to compensate for mutual failures of political leadership. That would be God’s work, indeed.
Robert Grenier was the CIA’s chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.