Saturday, December 06, 2008

Revamping Intelligence

This country’s intelligence culture is evident from two books that appeared in 2006. The first, the Mitrokhin Archive spoke of high-level penetration and influence-peddling by the KGB in India. It was politely ignored.
The second, by a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) official, Maloy Krishna Dhar detailed the political shenanigans of the IB, including the outrageous episode where Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi allowed his office to be used to bug President Giani Zail Singh in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Again, the book and the charge were coolly ignored by the entire political class.
The Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) arose from the disastrous defeat India suffered at the hands of China in 1962. Till then IB handled both internal and external intelligence as well as military intelligence. The R&AW got a good start under the leadership of Ramnath Kao, its first Director. But it would seem it has been downhill since.
India is one of the few democratic countries where the intelligence agencies are not supervised by the legislature. Actually there is little supervision by anyone at all. The misuse of money and facilities has become a byword. The Aviation Research Centre has aircraft for surveillance and liaison activities, yet there are reports of its aircraft being used to ferry politicians and provide joyrides for the bosses. Some of these were brought out in a book by Maj Gen V.K. Singh who’s now being prosecuted under the colonial Official Secrets Act.
Last month when a Pakistani minister announced that the ISI was being asked to shut down its political wing there was a great deal of amusement around the world and in India. But the fact is that the IB runs an equally big political operation. The IB may not funnel money to politicians, but it uses its machinery to spy on them for the benefit of the government of the day. The IB has a sophisticated secretariat to cover the entire political spectrum.
The result, naturally, is that these outfits don’t do their real job properly—protecting the country from external subversion and battling India’s enemies abroad.
Though a Group of Ministers’ decisions were approved in 2003, intelligence agencies used the 2004 change of government to block reform. The process got underway only in mid-2005 due to the sudden demise of National Security Advisor J.N. Dixit. The appointment of M.K. Narayanan as his successor led to expectations that reforms would be fast-tracked because he had himself been an IB director. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. Narayanan brought in cronyism into the intelligence agencies, allowing them to revert to the pass-the-buck culture.
In the process, the country’s new high-tech spying agency — the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) was not allowed to come up as directed by the GoM decisions. The NTRO was created to centralise all high-tech, and hence expensive, assets under one organisation to look after imagery and communications intelligence. Predictably, there was a lot of hue and cry from existing agencies who had to surrender turf. Narayanan as the chairman of the Technology Coordination Group to mediate conflicting claims refused to push the R&AW and IB to allow NTRO to come up. The agency remains stymied by poor leadership and morale.

Narayanan’s poor leadership of the National Security Council system is now becoming clearer. The coordination expected from the Joint Intelligence Committee does not seem to be working. The deputy National Security Advisers, a position once occupied by first-rate officers like Satish Chandra and Vijay Nambiar, are today held by people who need to be
accommodated for one extraneous consideration or other.
Actually, our intelligence services, particularly R&AW, do not have much of an operations culture. The bulk of their work is done through electronic intercepts and imagery intelligence, therefore the reluctance to allow the NTRO to come up. Another significant part of the work is to use money to buy influence and information. But the gap in an operations culture means that India has not even been able to deal with the ULFA militants living in Bangladesh.
As it is, little effort has been made to create a wider knowledge base for the intelligence agencies.The country’s language and area studies disciplines are the places where they can find interpreters, translators and analysts. Yet that is the last place they would go for them. First, because the output of our academic institutions is second or third-rate and second because the suspicious and bureaucratised agencies think that the best option is to train people in-house. As a result they can barely get the vast numbers of people you need to translate intercepts, foreign language papers and assess information. Just how skewed the system has become is evident from the fact that there are no Urdu interpreters in government service. We have millions of people who speak, read and write Urdu, but they are Muslims, and our intelligence agencies do not hire Muslims. So is it any wonder that they cannot penetrate jihadi groups?
Our agencies require urgent restructuring to enable their monitoring in a two-tier process. The first tier is supervision by ombudsmen to prevent misuse of the powers they wield. The second is that by the political class to ensure that public funds are spent for the purpose they have been appropriated in Parliament.
This appeared in Mail Today December 5, 2008

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