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A Coven Of Spooks

Our security agencies need reform, and from the ground up

A Coven Of Spooks
A Coven Of Spooks

Espionage in India has a long pedigree. Rigvedic hymns invoke Agni as the deceiver of foes, with spies detecting and catching criminals. Kautilya classified nine different types of spies—a fraudulent disciple (kapatikachhatra), a recluse (udasthita), a householder (gri­ha­paitika), a merchant (vaidehaka), an ascetic (tapasa), a colleague (satri), a firebrand (tikshna), a poisoner (rasada) and a mendicant woman (bhikshuki). Five of these (sanstha) were to be deployed for internal intelligence, collecting intelligence in sleeper capacities. Four of these (sanchaar) would be transitory, deployed for short terms, potentially outside the realm. Female spies were to serve as the coordinating link between the two arms.

European observers were awe-struck by the efficiency of Mughal intelligence (J.J.L. Gommans), with Manucci citing spies as the best means for regulation of the Mughal kingdom. Mir Jumla, the greatest of Mughal generals, was often found “replying to his handful of espionage letters”; a data processing commander. Shivaji kept more than a 1,000 spies in his service, with Bahirji Naik harassing the Mughals through raids on Surat, Burhanpur, Ujjain and Pune. The British Raj set up the Department of Criminal Intelligence (CID) (which later transformed into the Directorate of Intelligence Bureau, IB) in April 1904 to conduct domestic and foreign intelligence operations. With the 1962 war debacle and a cry of “not enough intelligence” in the 1965 war, Indira Gandhi decided to set up the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW).

Connecting the Dots: In September ’08, Zarrar Shah, the technology chief for the Lashkar-e-Toiba, roamed around Pakistan building an operational plan for the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. He and fellow terrorists used Google Earth to determine routes to targets in the city. Unbeknownst to him, his activities were being tracked by MI6, India and the CIA, scrutinising his internet searches and messages. On September 24, the IB, acting on information provided by the CIA, issued an alert about a Lashkar threat to Mumbai. State police issued a bulletin highlighting six targets including the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. RAW shared information about a ship moving down the coastline, passing it to the partially operationalised Multi Agency Centre (MAC). And yet, no one was able to put together a complete picture. “Intelligence failure,” as a hyper media implied, was apparently rampant.

Such sweeping assertions need to be drawn with great circumspection. As B. Raman notes (2004), despite “an unfortunate awareness” amongst the general public about Kargil being an “intelligence failure by RAW”, the Kargil review committee made no mention of this. With terror bombings rampant (Mumbai, 26/11/2008; Guwahati, 2009; Pune, 2010; Varanasi, 2010; Mumbai, 2011; Delhi, 2011; Pune, 2012; Dilsukhnagar, 2013; Bangalore, 2013; and Bodh Gaya, 2013), political responses advocated wholesale intelligence reorganisation. Subsequent investigations actually determined that the Intelligence Bureau was short of 2,000 personnel, with a capacity to hire just 200 a year. Given such institutional apathy towards espionage, “intelligence failures” are inevitable and natural.

A successful incursion or terrorist attack cannot immediately be correlated with catastrophic intelligence coordination failure, particularly in “connecting the dots”. Impo­ssible odds haunt the intelligence apparatus in this heterogeneous society of ours. In an era of multiple transient threats from individual entities, our espionage agencies face a “dearth of intelligence”. Facing significant information asymmetry, our intelligence professionals find a preponderance of probabilities harder to establish with intangible inputs. A “vacuum cleaner” approach, hoovering up vast amounts of big data through entities like NATGRID, is more suitable to technically superior governments like the US.

Unfinished Reformation: Our intelligence community has borne continuous proposals of reformation over the past decades—the Kargil 1999 GoM, the Ram Pradhan committee of 2008 and Pradhan Haldhar Narasimhan committee of 2009—and they have all made useful recommendations. The Ram Pradhan committee, in particular, identified “systemic loopholes” in intelligence processing and sharing, a neglect of local intelligence and insufficient inter-agency coordination as the primary causes of Maharashtra’s ineffectual terrorist containment. Most were focused on top-driven institutional causes, aiming to improve intelligence coordination while ignoring systemic concerns. Little focus has been given to paucity of talent that can cope with transnational terrorism. India has failed to implement any meaningful reforms on this front since 1947.

The CISF-based anti-hijacking squads, as suggested by the IB in 1972, were only approved after the 1999 IC-814 hijacking. A separate maritime BSF-like force, deemed necessary by the Rustamji Committee (1974), was ignored until 26/11.Following the 26/11 attacks, proposals for the creation of a National Investigation Agency (NIA), a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) were defined, while the MAC was strengthened. Our policymakers tinkered with meta-institutional reforms, delaying ground-level reformation.

Of Reasonable Expectations: India’s intelligence consumers need to rethink what they seek from such providers. Intelligence can never be complete, with immediate issues and events harder to predict than long-term views on China or Pakistan. Not all intelligence failures can be marked up to the producers. The consumers—policymakers and law enforcement agencies—need to bolster their capacity to process intelligence and act accordingly. Any intelligence apparatus will usually suffer from two organisational deficiencies—strategic analysis and information-sharing. Int­elligence reform can have three main priorities—strategic intelligence analysis, recruitment of skilled personnel and intelligence coordination.

IB is rooted in an unreformed colonial era policing system, its primary focus domestic, counter-intel.

The IB is rooted in the unreformed colonial policing system, and regularly comes under the scanner for terror attacks or internal security threats. Its pri­mary focus remains domestic and counter-intelligence activities, along with unf­ort­u­nate mis­use as political mac­h­i­nery against opposition lea­ders. Out­dated surveilla­nce equipment, inefficient onl­­ine surveillance, infrastruct­ure and sho­rtage of tra­ined man­power continue to be a bane. Between 2008-13, for its 19,000 bench strength, the IB recruited fewer than 50, with just a few hundred focused on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.

The NCTC was to be an integral part of the Intelligence Bureau, focusing on preventing and containing terrorist attacks. Facing concerns about the over-centralisation of intelligence agencies and bowing to state demands, NCTC has been left in abeyance. With security compartmentalised across India and an atmosphere of Centre-state mistrust prevailing on law and order issues, moves towards establishing a legal framework for intelligence gathering and coordination have languished. Without a push for an NCTC, a lack of capacity to process intelligence will remain.

Expertise Recruitment: The capacity at ground levels needs to be radically improved. The Kargil Review committee proposed a Joint Task Force on Intelligence (JTFI) to str­e­n­g­then local intelligence. Local authorities have an overdep­endence on central agencies for intelligence gathering while state intelligence, with their grassroots-level linkages and connections with state police, have been left to languish. The colonial era chowkidar system can’t be allowed to go extinct.

Working for the secret service should be a badge of honour. Intelligence gathering and processing is a highly specialised task which requires systematic professional training, lang­uage skills, in-depth country analysis and technological skills. Such skills cannot be developed on a temporary basis and require a lifetime learning platform. Reforms aimed at imp­r­oving the intelligence curriculum, promotion policies, hiring processes and lateral recruitment can be constituted. Vetting must not take a full year prior to recruitment. Useful statistics about the MAC should be circulated, highlighting its effective functioning and its accountability to the intel apparatus.

The agencies must set high standards for recruitment and insist on special interpretation and language skills. The UPSC can be utilised to create separate exams for entry, with a focus on international relations, military knowledge, history and economics. Experts from varied backgrounds like internatio­nal finance can be hired on iss­ues such as money-laundering. Compen­sation cannot be a bar.

Long-Term Coordination: The culture of intelligence must also change. Serving the government must be replaced by service to the nation, a strategic framework and a tool to build comprehensive national power.

At present, discussions on nat­ional security in the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) tend to focus on immediate or emerging security issues, with little focus on developing long-term strategic options or acco­unting on previous intelligence uptake. Seamless cooperation between intelligence producers and consumers has improved, but needs to be institutionally established. A dialogue between intelligence producers like RAW and IB, disseminators (MAC and MHA) and consumers like the states should elucidate the input’s importance, its utilisation and subsequent follow-up. Discretion and risk-taking must become second nature to our institutions.

Accountability should matter. Post-event audits could be conducted to help assess intelligence abilities and accuracy. A sound system of checks and balances, enforced by Parliament, the legislature, intelligence agencies and external review bodies might be instituted to avert repeated intelligence failures. Intelligence priorities can be redefined with a focus on asymmetrical threats, along with traditional great power politics. The obsession with secrecy cannot be a barrier for embracing the digital age.

(Feroze Varun Gandhi is the BJP MP from Sultanpur, UP)

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