March 31, 2020
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Clueless, As Always

Lack of experienced heads has left the agencies demoralised and directionless

Clueless, As Always
It's really no surprise but India's intelligence apparatus was taken unawares yet again by the Mumbai rail blasts. Forget specific inputs, even the government's technical intelligence-gathering arm saw no warnings coming. Nor did the local Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (SIB) do any better, failing to translate any inputs into hard intelligence that could have pre-empted the terrorist strike.

Definite clues apart, the intelligence agencies didn't even have broad leads on a possible attack, sources told Outlook. Rumours that the J&K police had forwarded some inputs based on the interrogation of a LeT militant on June 30 were denied by the Union home ministry. Said a senior intelligence official, "If we had specific intelligence inputs, wouldn't we have done something about it?"

So, did it all boil down to that now-familiar "intelligence failure"? A handy excuse for the establishment to explain systemic failures that have long dogged India's intelligence apparatus, the faultlines stood exposed yet again with the July 11 strikes. There is not only lack of coordination between external and internal intelligence agencies, but coordination even between the SIBs and the state police has been strained.

Sources say that surveillance on SIMI, which has a strong presence in Maharashtra, had been whittled down in the months preceding the attack. In fact, a flustered Union home minister Shivraj Patil, in a meeting held in Mumbai in Sonia Gandhi's presence soon after the attack, claimed that the state government was not making "adequate use of the funds allocated by the Centre". But while Patil may have found it convenient to pass the buck on to the state police, the fact remains that it's the primary responsibility of the central security apparatus that has the means and the reach to anticipate and neutralise such attacks.

The problem with India's intelligence, say observers, starts at the top. Today, both IB and RAW are headed by officers who are extremely competent but have limited exposure. While P.K.H. Tharakan, Secretary (R), heading RAW, was brought in from the Kerala police months before he was to retire, E.S.L. Narasimhan is reported to have never headed an independent SIB but was still made director, IB. He was the staff officer to national security advisor M.K. Narayanan when he headed the agency.

Insiders say the two-year fixed tenure given to both intelligence chiefs barely months before they were to retire sent out wrong signals. Besides affecting morale, it's led to the exodus of several senior officers experienced in dealing with terrorism. A lack of accountability at the top has ensured that India's security apparatus is open to infiltration as was demonstrated by the espionage ring functioning within the National Security Council secretariat.

A day after the Mumbai blasts, a high-level meeting held at the PMO reflected the confusion. At the meeting, chaired by the prime minister and attended by the NSA, the three service chiefs along with Narasimhan and Tharakan, no one could come up with options on how to deal with terrorism. India's refusal to look at any "tough options", say IB sources, can only mean that it will continue to bleed.

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