A few words in defense of the Pakistani ISI

A lot of arch and winking snark is circulating about finding OBL living in a nice house surrounded by retired army officers and a few blocks from the Pakistani military academy.  The suggestion is that the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service out of whose sight no sparrow falls, or even ruffles his feathers a little, or the army itself, must have known who their neighbor was and didn’t tell us.

This is so cynical and small-minded, and paranoid, as it projects superhuman powers of detection and inference on the ISI.  Bin Laden didn’t have his name on the mailbox. He didn’t have a phone, so how were they supposed to even look him up in the phonebook! His facebook page is all in Arabic; Pakistanis don’t speak Arabic! The walls around the place were eight and twelve feet high, and you have to have no manners at all not to understand that means you’re not welcome to look in. What kind of gaucherie are we expecting; gossiping with servants?

It’s even been suggested that they sent over a nice brisket for busy evenings in the plotting and mayhem trade, or otherwise facilitated his sojourn. In a neighborly sort of way.  But since they had absolutely no possible way of knowing who he was (a servant would take the brisket at the door) this is making a gracious virtue into a fault, and so unfair.

Anyway, the ISI is about the single, enduring, defining mortal threat to Pakistan, which is  India, and its laser-like focus is legendary.  We’ve heard absolutely nothing to suggest suspicious behavior of this sort from the OBL digs: not a Slumlord Millionaire delivered from Netflix; not a moo from inside; none of the usual symptoms of Indianity. And until we do, let’s respect the ISI and the army for doing their job and not being the kind of nosy people who stir things up and make bad feeling among neighbors who just want to get along and mind their business.

UPDATE 22:00PDT Mon.:  The Pakistani ambassador to the US explained to a reporter that criticizing Pakistan for not finding OBL was unjustified, and offered – as evidence that bad guys are sometimes just very hard to find – Whitey Bulger’s long success at staying out of jail. You could not make this up:  Whitey Bulger was  protected by the American ISI FBI, as a useful source of information with which to prosecute Italian mobsters, and money; the agent who “ran” him is in prison for life. Read the fictionalized version (better than real life, of course) in George V. Higgins’ At End of Day.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

19 thoughts on “A few words in defense of the Pakistani ISI”

  1. Whitey is long dead and buried in the Florida marshes. I suppose, old men with money can disappear on some golf course and never be heard from again–they have no usual activities that give away younger and poorer fugitives, such as the necessity to get a job. Plus they get certain privileges of age normally seen as a detriment–as they age, they become harder to recognize. Most of all, the one thing that gives them away is a hold on power–which was OBL’s undoing. If they are willing to hold onto the money and let go of the power, they can live out their days in comfort. Whitey? I doubt he could let go the power. He was a brutal, vindictive prick with little to live for but to wreak havoc. Quite retirement would have been out of character. And if he retained any of his former lifestyle, he’d be easily traced by his former associates with grudges. Had that happened, he would never been heard from again–nor his retired alter ego. So, there are really two possibilities. He either has been found out by his associates and been killed or he quietly assumed a completely new persona and quit his evil ways–in which case, for all practical purposes, Whitey Bulger is dead to the world (the usual argument of ex-Nazis who’ve been discovered in their waning years). But even in the latter case, he may well have died of natural causes. Of course, it’s also possible he retired to some hidden-away plantation in Costa Rica, right next to some nonagenarian ex-Nazi. But it seems unlikely–usually, people cannot be found because they really are dead (or protected by the government).

  2. Whitey isn’t proof that the bad guys are sometimes hard to find, (Though they are.) he’s proof that sometimes the bad guys have allies among the nominal “good guys”. Which is not an unlikely description of the relationship between Osama and the Pakistani intelligence service.

  3. “Anyway, the ISI is about the single, enduring, defining mortal threat to Pakistan, which is India, and its laser-like focus is legendary. ”

    Except for supporting the f*cking Taliban. Sheesh.

  4. Another idiotic analogy: some reporter from Al Jazeera was on Maddow last night and compared finding Bin Laden to finding the Unabomber. While overlooking the fact that no one knew the Unabomber’s face or name, and was hiding in the wilderness.

  5. I would add that from news accounts, OBL was living in a nice area of a nice city in Pakistan, a place where Pakistani Army officers like to have houses. In addition, his house was reported as being built in 2005, and as being far larger and more expensive than most of the houses in the area.

    Now, as somebody pointed out, being nosey in Paksitan is a bad idea for most people, this is the sort of neighborhood where I’d think that the elite residents would want to know who’s moving in.

  6. This proof by analogy for the innocence of the ISI would be a lot more convincing if Whitey Bulger had been living in a small fortress at 936 Pennsylvania Ave.

  7. Occam’s razor says that bin Laden was originally given shelter (which may have turned into a form of house arrest) by one faction in Pakistan. It also says that his location was (perhaps indirectly) given to the Americans by one (perhaps even the same) faction in Pakistan.

  8. I retired from the army as a first lieutenant in the Signal Corps after an undistinguished two-year career.

    If I were reactivated and placed in command of some post somewhere, within the United States or not, and saw a fortress on a hill with a three-story high keep 4,000 feet from my perimeter, from which a sniper could pick off my cadets and/or men at will, my perimeter would move 4,000 feet and I would secure that hill and keep myself. Don’t tell me it’s controlled by friendlies; I am not going to trust someone else to defend my position.

    The only thing that could keep me from taking control of that fortress on that hill is higher authority.

  9. I guess Mike left off the and tags again. Of course the ISI is in bed with both AQ and the Tals. The question is whether, now that we’ve taken down ObL, Zardari is emboldened to do some house-cleaning, even at the risk of his own life.

  10. I suspect that Osama was under a sort of house arrest – no electronic communications, no visitors except those permitted by the Pakistani Army or ISI, and those carefully tracked.

  11. Thaumaturgist, seek help. The number of people in the US shot from beyond shouting distance must be vanishingly small. If there’s been a genuine Sniper incident since 2001, I don’t recall it. The only sniping incident I can remember in recent memory was the DC sniper of 2001 – and, apparently unlike you, he was savvy enough not to attack from within a fixed home address, and not to go after groups of military-trained men. I will concede that Pakistan has a genuine domestic terrorism problem, so their calculations may differ, but even so the terrorists prefer to launch attacks using bombs and at point-blank range, and without an obvious million-dollar return address on the attack. If you find yourself in the US, on an army base with trained cadets at the peak of physical condition, and you are actively worried someone’s going to snipe at them from their home the best part of a mile away, you have some serious issues.

  12. Dear Warren:

    You are what we used to all a “chairborne ranger.” The bin Laden compound occupied the high ground overlooking the military academy. 4,000 feet is roughly 1200 meters, well within range of a good sniper rifle. Alternately, the building could serve as a platform for crew-served weapons providing both direct and indirect fire. Any way you look at it, the academy is in defilade. And no, I do not assume that just because I am in CONUS, my post is secure. By the way, in the army, an installation is known as a “post,” not a base.

  13. Thaumaturgist,
    I’m certainly not denying that attacks at such range are feasible. I’m denying that they happen, a denial you ignore. I’m especially denying that they happen in the US. I’m also pointing out that if you want to kill people at long range, doing so while standing in your own million-dollar property may not be the first choice.

    As to your “chairborne ranger” epithet, isn’t that usually reserved for people bragging about their imaginary prowess, their vast military knowledge, and their enormous metaphorical manhood? I did none of these, instead appealing to simple common sense. The term is usually used in reference to belligerent sort, who for example might insist that every high point within rifle shot of a military post must be secured.

    PS I hardly think it’s important whether the word “post” or “base” is used when referring to military installations. Firstly, because I don’t believe either is tremendously inappropriate terminology, or that you had the slightest doubt about my meaning; secondly, because “army base” is if anything used more often than “army post”; and thirdly, because even if you were in the right it’s hardly a substantive comment.

  14. Bloix says:

    “I suspect that Osama was under a sort of house arrest – no electronic communications, no visitors except those permitted by the Pakistani Army or ISI, and those carefully tracked.”

    Jim Henley (highclearing.com) had the theory a while back; it explained why there had been no Al Qaida attacks on the US mainland after 9/11. He figured the Pakistani military/ISI had told him that if there was one, he’d be on the next plane to NYC, after having been ‘caught in the Northwest Frontier’ zone.

  15. Well, Henley takes it a step further than I had gone – Osama wasn’t only under house arrest, he was a hostage!

  16. “This is so cynical and small-minded, and paranoid, as it projects superhuman powers of detection and inference on the ISI. Bin Laden didn’t have his name on the mailbox. He didn’t have a phone, so how were they supposed to even look him up in the phonebook! His facebook page is all in Arabic; Pakistanis don’t speak Arabic! The walls around the place were eight and twelve feet high, and you have to have no manners at all not to understand that means you’re not welcome to look in. What kind of gaucherie are we expecting; gossiping with servants?”

    Of course, this would never have deceived Americans. Oh, wait: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/may/03/us-bin-laden-hideout

    (Not that I doubt that the ISI is in bed with Al-Qaeda, but that’s based on other evidence, not the location of bin Laden’s hideout. I seriously doubt that every cadet at the Pakistan Military Academy is a secret Al-Qaeda supporter, especially not the women — you know that the PMA has been a coed facility since 2007, right? http://www.defence.pk/forums/land-forces/54104-121-pma-long-course-pakistan-military-academy-pma.html)

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