FP Explainer

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

No, but sometimes it helps.

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.

David Burnett/Newsmakers

FP Explainer

Why Don’t Other Countries Have Government Shutdowns?

It's a uniquely American form of gridlock.

With the clock ticking down to an April 8 deadline and President Barack Obama and congressional leaders unable to resolve disputes over abortion funding and changes to the Clean Air Act, it appears more and more likely that the U.S. federal government is headed for a shutdown. If the shutdown were to continue through Monday, hundreds of thousands of federal workers deemed nonessential would be furloughed. Essential services, such as national defense, would continue, but soldiers would likely not be paid. Other important services such as benefits for veterans and clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health would also probably be suspended. Do other countries ever have to deal with this?

No. Other countries may have coups, revolutions, and collapses, but a government so deadlocked it simply ceases to function seems to be an exclusively American phenomenon. Several features of the U.S. political system -- a strong executive branch with veto power, the Senate filibuster -- make the sort of deadlock we're seeing now more likely. In a parliamentary system, used by the vast majority of democracies in Europe and Asia, the budget process is similar on paper: The prime minister prepares a "government budget" and submits it to parliament for a vote. But if parliament rejects that budget, that's generally considered a sign that the government no longer has the confidence of parliament and has to resign.

This is exactly what happened in Portugal last month, when Prime Minister Jose Socrates stepped down following the rejection of a new budget featuring harsh austerity measures. The country is currently under the leadership of a caretaker government, until new elections can be held and a new government is formed -- which will presumably try to pass its own pared-down budget. However, just because a country with a parliamentary system is "without a government" doesn't mean that government services stop. Thanks to robust and apolitical civil services, most governments can keep operating no matter who's in power. Belgium hasn't had a government since June 2010, but, for the most part, the trains still run on time, the trash gets picked up, and budgets are even passed.

U.S.-style shutdowns are theoretically possibly in a parliamentary system if a budget is rejected and the government doesn't step down -- but they never actually occur. There were fears not long ago that if Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government proved unable to pass a budget by the start of the 2011 fiscal year in April, payments to civil servants and some government administrative services could be suspended. But the crisis was eventually averted when the budget passed in the wake of last month's deadly earthquake. Battles over a series of related spending bills are still pending. 

Even governments that are structured more along American lines, with strong executive braches, don't seem to have budget disputes so fraught that they shut down. Brazil started 2008 with no budget after former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's spending plans were rejected by Congress, but there were no disruptions to government services. (Swine flu did succeed in shutting down most of Mexico's public services in 2009.)

In fact, the shutdown has only been a feature of U.S. politics for the last 30 years. The Anti-Deficiency Act, originally enacted in 1884, prohibits federal agencies from conducting activities or entering into contracts that haven't been fully funded by congressional appropriations. But for most of the country's history, federal agencies simply continued operating during funding gap periods while trying to minimize unnecessary expenditures, believing that the law didn't intend for them to shut down entirely.

In 1980, however, Jimmy Carter's attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti, issued an opinion interpreting the act more narrowly to require that agencies suspend operations until a new appropriation was passed by Congress. Since then, there have been five shutdowns: two under Ronald Reagan that lasted for just a few hours, one under George H.W. Bush that conveniently fell over a holiday weekend, and two under Bill Clinton that lasted for five and 21 days -- during which an estimated 800,000 federal employees were furloughed. A number of state government shutdowns have also taken place. In 1990, Congress passed legislation to ensure that vital services such as law enforcement and defense keep operating during funding gaps.  

As with the current crisis, Congress has often put off government shutdowns through the passage of temporary funding bills called continuing resolutions. Some reform proposals have suggested making the passage of these resolutions automatic during funding gap periods. This might be a relief to thousands of federal employees and those who depend on their services -- but would be a real setback to one uniquely American tool of political brinksmanship.

Thanks to George Guess, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University; Allen Schick, professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy; and Bingham Powell, professor of political science at the University of Rochester.