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There Are No Secrets Here

No wonder our intelligence-gathering is so abysmal. There's no coordination between the agencies, there's red tape....

There Are No Secrets Here
There Are No Secrets Here
A high-profile meeting held at the Prime Minister's Office in late 2005 was revealing. It brought to the fore what ails Indian intelligence. The principal players of the intelligence community, senior officials from the IB, RAW and the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), were all present at that meeting, which was chaired by the National Security Advisor (NSA), M.K. Narayanan.

On top of the agenda was the need to put in place a network that would help crack intercepts between terrorist cells using a new and advanced communications network. NTRO officials put it on the table that they had a plan ready and that they had been developing or acquiring technical equipment to this end. This was in their purview as mandated by the Group of Ministers set up after the Kargil war. However, about then the IB representatives present interjected and pointed out that interception was in their jurisdiction.

The NSA, an ex-Intelligence Bureau director himself, also weighed in saying this ought to be the IB's task. The NTRO officials held their ground, stating that if this was so, instructions must be issued in writing. "We were clear that if this was not put down in writing, in the event of an intelligence failure we would be the likely scapegoat," an official in the know of what transpired at the meeting told Outlook. Despite being a task force member on intelligence, Narayanan had executed a volte-face that left NTRO officials stunned. "The NTRO was set up to be the nodal agency for all technical intelligence on the recommendations of the task force. But the NSA said the task should go to the IB. He even issued instructions that the "order be recorded in writing". The net result of all that bickering—no new system has been put in place till now.

This is typical of how the turf war between different arms of the Indian intelligence apparatus has severely hampered operations in recent times. Senior officials are unanimous on this point: different agencies pulling in different directions does not help when coordinated action is the need of the hour. Add to that systemic failures and you have a recipe for faulty or inadequate intelligence. Sample this:
  • When investigators were burrowing through mountains of data after the Mumbai blasts, they did not have a centralised databank to fall back on. The Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) set up for this five years ago is still not fully operational.
  • Technical coverage of neighbouring countries, the mainstay of Indian intelligence capabilities, has been steadily whittled down due to lack of adequate equipment and technology. A programme mooted in 1998 is yet to take off.
  • A '98 proposal to set up dedicated think-tanks in the ministries of home, defence, external affairs and finance still hasn't happened.
  • The National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), responsible for collating and processing intelligence, has been headless for nearly a year.
  • Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which merged with the NSCS in 1998, has been separated again. A retired official has been chosen to head the JIC. The demerger has achieved precious little.
  • There have been very few meetings of the Strategic Policy Group, Intelligence Coordination Group and Technical Coordination Group, all set up to monitor the quality of intelligence.
  • There is poor coordination with intelligence agencies abroad. Files relating to several key operations have not been cleared for months.
  • Little or no attention is being paid to key wings such as the Aviation Research Centre (ARC). Forty per cent of its aircraft are currently inoperable.
  • There is disproportionate focus on political intelligence rather than internal security.
  • Lack of financial auditing has resulted in massive, unaccounted spending with few results to justify the cash outflow.
Since February this year, intelligence agencies have been waiting for the government to clear a draft legislation giving them legal teeth to go 'hacking' when national security is involved. "Terrorists are increasingly tech-savvy...we've been waiting for years for a comprehensive IT policy which clears legal hurdles if the agencies have to hack into computers. The law ministry is still sitting on the draft legislation," says an official.

To be fair, despite its limited resources and focus on political intelligence, the IB has managed to produce results. Sources say that pinpoint intelligence in the Kashmir Valley this year has helped neutralise nearly 70 LeT divisional commanders. "Terrorists are now afraid to designate anyone as a commander. They are scared," an IB official told Outlook. But officials are quick to point out that the success is more due to motivated, competent officers rather than any institutionalised mechanism. The fact is that manpower policies need to be updated quickly. In fact, the IB faced a spot of embarrassment when they tried to retain Francis Aranha, a 1984 batch IPS officer who wanted join the International Monetary Fund. Aranha, considered a promising officer, was a classic case of a talented officer getting frustrated within the system.

Home ministry sources point out that while the MAC is yet to take off, there has also been little progress with the Joint Task Force on intelligence. Set up to improve coordination between the states and the central intelligence agencies, there has been virtually no sharing of information. At a meeting of the Intelligence Coordination Group, the IB and RAW refused to set up a centralised databank of information. "Officials were insistent that the sharing would be only on a case-by case basis."

But the biggest failure, insist security experts, is at the level of governance. "Nearly 95 per cent of your intelligence is from public sources. But do we have a mechanism to analyse it and then separate the chaff from the grain? How do we identify what is operational and what is not?" asks Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, who was part of a task force to restructure intelligence along with K.C. Pant and Jaswant Singh in 1998. "When we set up the NSCS, it had just 17 people with it. In the US, the NSCS had 650 to analyse and provide papers for useful inputs," he adds.

Agrees Ajit Doval, ex-IB director who's handled counter-insurgency ops from the Northeast to Punjab to Kashmir: "Terrorists will keep changing methodologies to avoid detection and to surprise us. Are we updating our intelligence doctrines adequately to address these new threats?" he asks. Even agencies like ARC, which were applauded for their inputs during the Kargil war, have been starved of funds. "Two out of the three Gulfstream aircraft are not functional. One was damaged during the Orissa cyclone and has since been inoperable. Our Mi-17 helicopters only fly an average of 8 hours a month when they should be logging at least 25 hours. Not only is this a criminal waste, but also negligence," a senior official told Outlook.

So what is the government doing as India's security apparatus goes into a tailspin? Well, a simple episode may give us an idea: the Centre is yet to appoint a deputy NSA to head the crucial NSCS after Vijay Nambiar left, even though three seasons have passed. National security, it seems, is not really a matter of national concern.

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