FP Explainer

Does the CIA Need a Country’s Permission to Spy on It?

Does the CIA Need a Country’s Permission to Spy on It?

Pakistan’s military is demanding that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sharply cut back its activities in the country in the wake of undercover agent Raymond Davis’s arrest on murder charges and subsequent release. In addition to scaling back the number of CIA drone strikes on Pakistani targets, Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has insisted on the withdrawal of all contractors working for the CIA and all operatives like Davis, who are working in "unilateral" assignments, meaning that only one country (read: not Pakistan) is aware of their presence. But since when does the CIA need a country’s permission to conduct intelligence operations? Isn’t the whole point that the local government isn’t supposed to know they’re there?

Yes and no. There are two types of CIA agents operating abroad. Declared agents, whom the host government — but not the public or media — are aware of, and undeclared ones, who are operating without the local government’s consent. Most CIA stations have a mix of both — those operating with the consent and awareness of the authorities, and those operating in the shadows.

Davis, a CIA contractor who was tracking the activities of a number of militant groups while officially in the country as a member of the U.S. embassy’s logistical staff, would have fallen into the undeclared category. Davis’s case is actually an illustrative example of why undeclared agents are needed, even in a country with an ostensibly friendly government such as Pakistan: The militant group he was focused on, Lashkar-e-Taiba, is believed to have long-standing ties with the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence service. 

It’s impossible to know just how many declared agents the CIA posts worldwide, but as the agency has shifted toward focusing on nonstate actors and terrorist threats, partnerships with local governments are often critical, with sometimes surprising effects. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2010 that the CIA station chief in Kabul, a former Marine in his 50s known to his colleagues as "Spider," has become a pivotal behind-the-scenes power broker in Afghanistan, having developed a far closer relationship with President Hamid Karzai than his U.S. diplomatic and military counterparts. One former colleague of Spider’s even described the station chief as Karzai’s "security blanket."

It should also be pointed out that just because an agent is "undeclared" doesn’t mean that the local government doesn’t know about him. The Russian spy ring deported from the United States last year was undercover, but reportedly well known to U.S. authorities for years before its presence was made public.

What makes the Pakistani case unusual is the degree of publicity surrounding it: These conversations usually happen behind closed doors. After the extremely unpopular decision to release Davis, the Pakistani government is likely looking to demonstrate that it isn’t overly beholden to the CIA. That doesn’t mean the CIA has to listen, however.

The "unilateral" or "undeclared" agents that Kayani wants out of the country are precisely the ones who don’t bother to ask for permission to be there. Given the security threats present in Pakistan, it’s a safe bet that the CIA will continue to operate there on some level, whether or not it has an invitation.

Thanks to Paul Pillar, director of graduate studies at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies and a former CIA intelligence officer.