February 22, 2020
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Ghosts Who Walk

Long overdue, a taskforce report on how to reform our intel agencies

Ghosts Who Walk
Ghosts Who Walk

Spywork For Dummies

  • Lack of coordination: Turf battles have slowed down or completely blocked reform No financial accountability: Secret service funds steadily increasing, without unused funds being surrendered
  • Press reports as intelligence: Artfully cloaked news reports from international publications passed off as source reports
  • Poor recruitment policies: RAW suffers from the “tail-end syndrome” where UPSC bottom-rungers are offered jobs
  • Archaic training: The training curriculum in RAW remains archaic and too police-centric Drift in operational work: Breaches of national security due to poor analysis and inadequate follow-up action
  • Lack of cover: RAW operatives suffer from inadequate cover when posted abroad


Intelligence reforms in India have usually been an area that always sees a piecemeal approach, mostly crisis-driven and not based on a real assessment of need. Now, for the first time, a task force of the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (idsa) has come up with a comprehensive set of recommendations by examining the processes that have plagued India’s intelligence community.

Making a strong pitch for greater accountability via a parliamentary oversight board, the task force has suggested the government also look at strengthening financial accountability as a measure to prepare Indian intelligence agencies for the challenges of the 21st century.

“About a year ago, vice-president Hamid Ansari pointed out that there is a need for statutory oversight of our intelligence agencies. That was the spark needed...for us at idsa,” director-general N.S. Sisodia told Outlook. In a first, the think-tank decided to look at preparing recommendations that examine the critical processes of national security “to promote a healthy debate and help the government take an informed decision”, says Sisodia.

The task force examined the efficacy of the current operational structure, recruitment, ability to process raw inputs into actionable intelligence, technology upgrades and better intelligence coordination between the agencies (currently riven by turf wars). Led by R. Banerji, a well-regarded former special secretary in raw, with P.K. Upadhya and Brig Raj Shukla as its members, it held a series of consultations with the strategic community, including former nsa Brajesh Mishra, the recently deceased K. Subrahmanyam and a host of ex-IB and raw chiefs before preparing its report.

“Vice-president Ansari felt that a statutory oversight of our intel agencies was needed. That was our cue.” N.S. Sisodia, IDSA D-G   “All major democracies have gone in for tiers of accountability and oversight...it empowers the intel agencies.” R. Banerji, Taskforce head

Some of the key problem areas identified by the task force are:

Lack of national intelligence coordination: Acknowledging that turf wars have proved to be a major impediment, the report notes that they have “taken a toll by slowing down or even completely blocking reform”. The task force also felt that proposed organisations like the National Counter Terrorism Centre (nctc) have the “potential to intensify turf battles among existing agencies”. Hence, it has recommended that the government appoint a national intelligence coordinator to end turf battles and assist the national security advisor in preventing a repeat of intelligence failures like Kargil and the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008.

No financial accountability: The task force felt that “to improve efficiency... there can be no getting away from introducing some sort of external supervision and control, including legislative oversight”. It also examined critical lacunae in current procedures where there is no accountability of secret service funds. In fact, it observed that unlike other government budgetary allocations, funds here never lapse at the end of a financial year. “Ironically enough, the secret service funds portion has been steadily increasing and it is that portion which is never surrendered whereas other portions of funds allotted do lapse if schemes remain unimplemented.” It feels these “aberrations need to be controlled and scrutinised”.

Press reports passed off as secret intelligence: The task force did not mince words where “very common examples of misuse of operational practices” such as “artfully cloaking” news reports from “international publications such as the (International) Herald Tribune, Le Monde or foreign magazines such as Der Spiegel as source reports”. Many intelligence operatives would then source these news reports to their “non-existent human source assets” and even claim secret service funds. As a result, Indian intelligence has been plagued by spectacular failures on several occasions.

Poor recruitment policies: The task force noted that raw suffered from the “tail-end syndrome” where the “bottom of the entrance lists” of those appearing for the upsc examinations were offered jobs. Even the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which used to have an excellent earmarking system, has now “diluted” its standards. Both agencies seem to have confined their “deputation quotas” to the Indian Police Service. As a result, specialised requirements such as science and technology or intake of defence service officers have suffered. The task force has strongly recommended open recruitment to ensure that the most talented professionals are recruited. It noted that this is the current practice in frontline intelligence agencies of countries like the US, the UK and Israel.

Archaic training: The “training curriculum in raw”, the report notes, “remains archaic and too police-centric”. Training methods have not even incorporated “modern technological advances in methods of communication” for running a source. In the IB, training schedules have been ‘shortened” to meet operational needs, far short of the ideal two years needed to produce good intelligence operatives. The task force also points out that an earlier recommendation to establish a common training centre for all intelligence agencies “was not accepted”.

Poor analysis and drift in operational work: “Many breaches of national security occurred in the past and continue to occur today, not for want of intelligence, but due to poor analysis and inadequate follow-up action.” The task force analysed the problem and said operations is an area that needs urgent attention. It recommends that analysts be trained in modern prescriptive work which can then ensure better supervision in operations.

Lack of cover jobs: A major problem for raw operatives has been the inadequate cover they get when posted abroad. Sadly, the report says, “in India efforts were made earlier to experiment with non-official cover by setting up a travel agency or a security wing thereof with operations overseas. But these proposals did not get off the ground due to last-minute bureaucratic obstacles”. The current diplomatic cover “limits access to spot real targets” and causes issues on handling “high-value assets”. It also restricted gathering intelligence in specialised fields like economics and technology. “While working on the report, we noted that a balance must be maintained between operational efficiency and oversight mechanisms,” Banerji told Outlook. “All major democracies have gone in for several tiers of accountability and oversight and it empowers intelligence agencies to produce sharper results.”

The last major institutional and systemic reform in India’s national security was undertaken in the aftermath of the Kargil war. But in 2008, when LeT terrorists attacked Mumbai, it revealed that much of the improvements envisaged had failed to materialise. Now, an attempt has been made to address the needs of India’s intelligence community rather than take a crisis-driven approach. Hopefully, those responsible for India’s security will approach the recommendations with an open mind.

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