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Pakistani and American Intelligence Agencies Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 8th, 2020


Nowadays, Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is being commonly referred to, as one of the world’s most efficient intelligence organizations. This alone establishes several objective preconditions for the methods of how the ISI goes about gathering intelligence, to be compared with the intelligence-gathering strategy, deployed by the intelligence organizations in America – specifically, the CIA. In this paper, I will do just that.

Similarities between the CIA and ISI

The main similarity between the CIA and ISI is that both of these organizations adhere to the principles of the Realist paradigm of international relations. According to it, it is namely the never-ending process of states competing for natural resources, which defines the essence of the observed dynamics in the arena of international politics. Hence, this paradigm’s conceptualization of what accounts for the de facto purpose of just about every country’s existence:

  1. political/economic expansion,
  2. maintenance of political stability within,
  3. destabilization of competing states (Sterling-Folker, 2002).

What it means is that, while pursuing their activities, the ISI and CIA are being the least concerned with observing the principles of international law. Simultaneously, this accounts for the fact that, as was mentioned earlier, both intelligence organizations can be regarded as functionally efficient.

Another major similarity between the ISI and CIA is that, while gathering intelligence, both organizations rely on the expansive networks of the foreign-based agents/informants, endowed with the diplomatic immunity. For example, it is being estimated that at least a good half of personnel, employed by the American embassy in Moscow, work for the CIA (Radsan & Murphy, 2012). The same suggestion applies to the deployed intelligence-gathering strategy, on the part of ISI – Pakistani embassies throughout the world can be well-referred to in terms of the ISI’s ‘sanctuaries’. Partially, this can be explained by the fact that methodologically speaking, the operational philosophy of both of these organizations is concerned with the time-tested traditions of British espionage.

What is also similar between the CIA and ISI is that, along with gathering intelligence, both organizations apply an active effort in the creation of the ‘zones of instability’ in those parts of the world, where the geopolitical interests of Pakistan and America are believed to have come under threat, posed by a third party. The validity of the statement can be illustrated, in regards to the fact that, during the eighties, the CIA and ISI actively supported the Islamic militants in Afghanistan – hence, preventing the USSR from being able to pacify this country. What it means is that both: the CIA and ISI, can be well regarded, as such that allow the affiliated countries to go about achieving several essentially military objectives, without having to declare a formal war.

The CIA and ISI are similar, concerning their willingness to participate in the active espionage – even against those countries that are consisted of the closest allies of the U.S. and Pakistan. For example, as was revealed by Edward Snowden, up until recently, the CIA used to record phone-conversations with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The ISI acted similarly while trying to tap phones of the American embassy in Islamabad (Cloos, 2011).

Moreover, there are unconfirmed reports (concerned with the incident) that the ISI acted in close collaboration with Chinese intelligence. This implies that, just as it is being the case with the CIA, ISI is a goal-oriented organization, the continual existence of which reflects the sheers fallaciousness of many of the Constructivist assumptions about the international politics’ actual nature.

Finally, we can well mention the fact that just it is being the case with the CIA, ISI never admits of having participated in any espionage activities – even if caught red-handed. The reason for this is that, in the formal sense of this word, both organizations position themselves, as being solely concerned with protecting the national security of the U.S. and Pakistan, while maintaining that they have nothing to do with espionage, by definition.

Differences between the CIA and ISI

The list of differences between the ISI and CIA is much longer:

  1. The ISI’s Director-General must be a serving General in the Pakistani Army. In its turn, this reflects the fact that, as opposed to what it is being the case with the U.S. Army, the Armed Forces of Pakistan can be well discussed in terms of the government’s most powerful branch – quite contrary to the Pakistani Constitution’s provisions. This explains why the ISI played an important role in organizing just about all the military coups, which had taken place during recent decades. The CIA, on the other hand, is usually headed by civilians – this is supposed to establish the additional precondition for the organization to function in a thoroughly supervised manner.
  2. Whereas, the CIA is forbidden to spy after American citizens within the U.S., this is not the case with the ISI, which enjoys the essentially unrestricted freedom of subjecting Pakistani citizens to surveillance, without having to obtain a court order (Bedi, 1992). In fact, within the ISI community, it is specifically the organization’s counterintelligence sub-division, which is considered the most powerful one. Partially, the earlier mentioned situation has to do with the fact that, unlike what happened to be the case with the intelligence community in the U.S., the Pakistani one has not been thoroughly structuralized yet. In other words, there are no clearly defined operational boundaries for the ISI’s numerous subdivisions, which in turn create a number of the logical prerequisites for the organization in question to be continuously associated with the reports of the violations of human rights in Pakistan.
  3. Throughout recent decades, the CIA’s operational philosophy has undergone a qualitative transformation. Whereas during the eighties, the CIA used to predominantly rely on its overtly and covertly operating agents, as the foremost mean of procuring intelligence-information, nowadays this has effectively ceased being the case. As of today, it is specifically the technologically-intensive methods of obtaining such information, concerned with launching satellites and with subjecting the foreign-based persons of interest to the different means of surveillance, which play an increasingly important role, within the context of how the CIA goes about keeping the U.S. government updated, as to what should be considered the actual significance of the geopolitical dynamics in the world (Sales, 2012). The ISI, on the other hand, continues to rely mainly on covert intelligence work, as the mean of ensuring the national security of Pakistan. In part, this can be regarded as the direct consequence of the fact that Pakistan is not a technologically developed country. However, this situation also reflects the ISI top-officials’ reluctance to experiment with the innovative methods of intelligence gathering.
  4. The extent of operational effectiveness, on the part of ISI, falls short of that of the CIA. The full soundness of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to the fact that the concerned organization has failed at providing the Pakistani government with an adequate estimate of India’s military potency, before the outbreaks of both Indo-Pakistani Wars in 1965 and 1971. This can be discussed as the consequence of the ISI remaining a structurally rigid organization, which in turn discourages its sub-divisions from competing with each other, within the context of how they go about obtaining intelligence information. The same cannot be said about the intelligence community in the U.S., which consists of several organizations that operate in the semi-independent mode, such as the CIA, FBI, DIA, NSA, NIMA, and MCI. What also contributes to the ISI’s lack of operational efficiency is the fact that, as opposed to what it is being the case with the CIA personnel, many officers employed by the ISI, secretly sympathize with the cause of Islamic fundamentalism (Shaun 2007). This simply could not be otherwise, because, during the last thirty years, the Pakistani government promoted the policy of Islamization. This, of course, contributed towards the creation of the ‘fifth column’ within the ranks of even the ISI’s highest officials. The same policy also resulted in reducing the measure of professional adequacy, on the part of many of the ISI’s officers. After all, the notions of professionalism and religiosity are mutually incompatible.
  5. While indulging in the counterintelligence activities, the ISI often resorts to torture, as one of the most effective methods of extracting information out of the interrogated suspects. This, of course, creates much of negative publicity for the organization in question – hence, causing many socially prominent Pakistanis to consider working on behalf of the ISI’s enemies. It is understood, of course, that this establishes many additional obstacles on the way of the concerned organization striving to achieve its operational objectives. In this respect, the CIA (as well as the rest of intelligence organizations in the U.S.) appears to have an upper hand – even though it does deploy several different torture-based methods of intelligence gathering, the organization in question is nevertheless able to keep a low profile of what is going on ‘behind the scene’.


Even though, as was shown earlier, there are indeed several differences between the CIA and ISI, concerning what account for the main principles of how the concerned organizations gather intelligence information, these differences appear to have been dialectically predetermined. That is, the specifics of both organizations’ functioning reflect the particulars of the affiliated intelligence-environments, which in turn are strongly affected by the overall geopolitical situation in the world.

What cannot be doubted, however, is that the main operational principles of the CIA and ISI will remain the same in the future. The reason for this is that, as it was implied earlier, the planet’s natural resources are limited, whereas, the planet’s population continues to grow in the exponential progression to the flow of time. Thus, there will be no end to the ongoing competition between even the formally allied countries.


Bedi, R. (1992). ISI’s grip on Pakistan government. India Abroad, p. 2.

Cloos, K. (2011). Inside Pakistan’s ISI: Who knew about Bin Laden? The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. 30 (6), 51-52.

Radsan, A. & Murphy, R. (2012). The evolution of law and policy for CIA targeted killing. Journal of National Security Law & Policy. 5 (2), 439-463.

Sales, N. (2012). Self-restraint and national security. Journal of National Security Law & Policy. 6 (1), 227-289.

Shaun, G. (2007). The ISI and the war on terrorism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 30 (4), 1013–1031.

Sterling-Folker, J. (2002). Realism and the constructivist challenge: Rejecting, reconstructing, or rereading. International Studies Review, 4 (1), 73-97.

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