September 24, 2020
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Be Like Israel...

But only for the right reasons. One of which is that the performance of intelligence agencies and their officers in Israel are assessed purely on the basis of the preventive intelligence relating to terrorism collected by them.

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Counter Terrorism Home Truths: part II

Preventive intelligence, preventive physical security and thorough investigation and successful prosecution are the main pillars of effective counter-terrorism.

Intelligence agencies all over the world complain that for every successful terrorist strike, there were at least two or more, which were thwarted due to timely intelligence collected by them. They further complain that while they are blamed for their failures, no public credit is given to them for their successes because the details of their successes are not announced to the public for reasons of operational secrecy. This is true. At the same time, intelligence officers should understand that the public would judge them by their known failures and not by their unknown successes. Known failures are a bit too many in India.

Complaints made against the central intelligence agencies by police officers responsible for prevention are:

  • They give general intelligence and not specific. If they are able to get specific intelligence, terrorist strikes can be easily prevented.

  • Intelligence agencies try to protect themselves in advance from any criticism, by flooding the police with a large number of low-grade reports. They focus on quantity and not quality.

After having served as the head of the counter-terrorism division of the Research & Analysis Wing for six years, I have to admit the validity of such complaints. It is not as if the intelligence agencies do not give specific intelligence. They do often. A good example, which is now publicly known, is the intelligence gathered by the R&AW about the plans of the Khalistani terrorists to kill Rajiv Gandhi when he went to Rajghat in October, 1987. The R&AW was able to get complete details of this plot including when, where and how the Khalistanis would try to kill Rajiv Gandhi. 

The report was totally correct, but the R&AW's credibility with the Delhi Police was so low that they did not act on this report thinking that it must be one of those "gups". Rajiv Gandhi was saved because of the incompetence of the man deputed by the Khalistanis to kill him.

If the R&AW's credibility with the Police officers in different states is low, that of the Intelligence Bureau is even lower. The only way of improving the credibility of the organisations in the eyes of the state police is by improving the quality of reporting instead of focussing on quantity. All Prime Ministers--barring Indira Gandhi-- tended to defend the intelligence agencies from charges of failure of intelligence. Indira Gandhi was the only Prime Minister, who did not have this conditioned reflex of going to the defence of the intelligence agencies, even if they did not deserve it. She did not hesitate to hold them accountable if they failed to perform. Under her, heads used to roll from time to time in the intelligence agencies because of poor performance, but this does not happen under other Prime Ministers.

A Prime Minister should give the intelligence agencies all the backing they need in the form of personnel, equipment, funds and enhanced powers, but if, in spite of this, they fail to perform he should not hesitate to act against them in public to make it clear to senior intelligence officers that poor performance and incompetence would not be tolerated. I cannot think of any instance in recent years when a senior intelligence officer had to pay a price for his demonstrated or perceived incompetence. Once officers reach the top positions, they manage to continue till their superannuation irrespective of whether they improve the performance of their agencies or not.

One will notice that in the Western intelligence agencies, officers rise to be the chief at a comparatively young age. Mr.Robert Gates, the present US Defence Secretary, was a career officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. He rose to be the Director of the CIA when he was still in his 40s. This was because of the constant weeding out of incompetent officers at different levels. In India, R.N.Kao became the first head of the R&AW at the age of 50 and N.F.Suntook, the third chief of the organisation, at the age of 52. All others became the chiefs after they had crossed the age of 55 and were approaching superannuation. Unless there is constant weeding out of incompetent officers at different levels, efficiency and competence will not improve and there will be no incentive for good performance. Such weeding out takes place in our armed forces, but not in our intelligence agencies.

Even though we have been facing the problem of religious, ethnic and ideological terrorism for decades, collection of intelligence relating to terrorism and insurgency has not been given the high priority it deserves. In India, one tends to emulate Israel for the wrong reasons. One must emulate it for the right reasons. One of these right reasons is that the performance of intelligence agencies and their officers in Israel are assessed purely on the basis of the preventive intelligence relating to terrorism collected by them. An officer may get brilliant reports on military or political intelligence, but none of these will help him in his career if he fails to get good preventive intelligence reports on terrorism.

The time has come for a detailed look into the charters and priorities of our intelligence agencies in order to ensure that collection of terrorism-related intelligence is given a high priority, if not the highest priority. It must be made clear to the agencies and their officers that their performance will be judged with the yard-stick of counter-terrorism. 

To be continued.


B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.


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