The government of India has before it two comprehensive reports on the measures that need to be taken for improving our intelligence capabilities and for making our intelligence agencies more efficient and accountable.
The first report is part of a larger study on the modernisation of the national security apparatus undertaken by a high-powered Task Force headed by Mr Naresh Chandra, former cabinet secretary and presently convenor of the National Security Advisory Board. It is a classified report prepared after extensive secret interactions with serving and retired officers of the intelligence agencies and ministries and departments dealing with national security which are consumers of the products of the intelligence agencies. The results of secret interactions with senior police officers from States facing internal security problems such as insurgency and terrorism have also gone into the preparation of the report of the intelligence sub-group of the Naresh Chandra Task Force.
This sub-group has had access to secret data relating to the functioning of the agencies and the views of the consumers of their products. Its focus has been on the inner core of the problems and difficulties faced by the agencies and their inadequacies as seen by the consumers of their products.
The second report has been prepared by a small Task Force set up by the Institute For Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). The three-member Task Force was headed by Mr Rana Banerji, one of the finest analysts on Pakistan produced by the R&AW, who retired a couple of years ago. Having been a Task Force not enjoying the cover of the Official Secrets Act, it does not appear to have had the benefit of secret interactions with the serving officers of the intelligence agencies. Its interactions, as one could see from its comprehensive report, have been largely with the community of retired officers.
The result naturally has been an over-focus on the external shell of the intelligence community and a lack of insight and understanding of the inner core issues. Among the outer shell issues usefully covered by it are the need for a legislative cover, the importance of external oversight by professionals as well as parliamentary representatives, greater institutional co-ordination etc. These are important issues but hardly touch the inner core issues which really would determine whether India has the intelligence capability it needs now and it would need in the years to come.
These two exercises have been undertaken at a time when there has been considerable criticism of our intelligence agencies after the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai and of their seeming helplessness in neutralising notorious terrorist leaders such as Dawood Ibrahim and Hafiz Mohammed Sayeed of the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba who have been operating with impunity from Pakistani territory since 1993.
Our agencies have not so far been able to neutralise Dawood and his accomplices who took shelter in Karachi after the March 1993 terrorist strikes in Mumbai. Nor have they been able to neutralise Sayeed of the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The criticism of our agencies and expressions of disenchantment and scepticism over their functioning by large sections of public opinion have increased after the spectacularly successful US neutralisation of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 2 of last year.
A discomfiting question serving and retired intelligence officers often face from their public interlocutors is: If the US intelligence and special forces located thousands of kms away from Pakistan can plan and execute a clandestine intelligence operation of this nature, why the Indian agencies based next door to Pakistan are not able to do so. They watch helplessly as these terrorist leaders carry out one daring strike after another in the Indian territory.
To cover our discomfiture, we often try to put the blame on the political leadership by alleging that our soft political leadership does not allow us to carry out such operations in foreign territory. This is not incorrect, but does not explain adequately our helplessness.
Let us presume we get a political leadership like President Barack Obama and he tells our agencies: Forget about foreign territory. Dawood and Sayeed have killed too many Indians. Go and get them. Will our agencies be able to do it? One would be justified in having doubts.
That is where the capability of their inner core comes in. The agencies may have the best of legislative cover, parliamentary oversight, co-ordination mechanism etc. But if they do not have this inner core capability, all these outer shell reforms will be of little use.
From time to time, we undertake exercises to revamp our intelligence apparatus. In the past, such exercises were governmental. To my knowledge, the IDSA exercise is the first non-governmental one.
All these exercises largely tend to be more academic than practical, more copycatting the beaten track of other countries than stimulating innovative ideas of our own. I would have been happier if the recent exercises by the Naresh Chandra Task Force and the IDSA had gathered together a group of serving and retired officers of the agencies and posed the following questions to them for a brain-storming:
- Would you have been able to carry out an operation similar to the Abbottabad operation of the CIA? If not, why not?
- If you are given political instructions to neutralise Dawood and Sayeed, would you be able to do so? If not, why not?
Such brain-storming exercises would have brought out the state of the inner core of our intelligence agencies and drawn the attention of our policy-makers to the problems and deficiencies of our agencies.
In my limited knowledge, the police Special Branch culture still largely governs the thinking and functioning of our intelligence agencies. They collect intelligence largely on the basis of discussions with casual and peripheral sources having limited access to inside intelligence. Our record in penetration operations has been poor.
Forty-four years after the R&AW was formed, it has not been able to develop the culture of the secret agent. It has many brilliant intelligence officers, who function more or less as Special Branch officers operating in foreign territory or as secretive pseudo-diplomats. They are not secret agents in the real sense of the term as it is understood in the intelligence agencies of other countries.
A real secret agent is an officer who is a risk-taker, who foregoes diplomatic and other protections and penetrates the sanctum sanctorum of the adversary—whether it be another state or a terrorist organisation— and clandestinely and successfully carries out opportunistic tasks of the nature assigned by Obama to the CIA officers and Navy Seals who located OBL in Abbottabad and ultimately neutralised him.
Unless we are able to develop such an intelligence culture of a secret agent, we will continue functioning as glorified Special Branch officers, collecting useful bits of intelligence here and there, but unable to clandestinely strike at our national adversaries.
Why we have not been able to develop such an intelligence culture of secret agents for 44 years and what we should do now to develop it is a question that should be addressed by the government as it examines the two Task Force reports.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.