Saturday, May 01, 2010

In spying on politicians we are no different from the ISI

On Monday, the National Technical Research Organisation celebrated its seventh birthday. I was not at the party, but I can guess that the atmosphere was not particularly celebratory. Suddenly an agency that should neither be seen nor heard, has become the centre of a scandal alleging that it had tapped the phones of four prominent politicians, including one from the ruling party.
There is something curious in the NTRO figuring in such a controversy. As is well known, the outfit is meant to gather strategic technical intelligence, so why was it involved in a tawdry wire-tap of politicians which is more up the Intelligence Bureau’s alley? Or, in the way of spooks, are we being led down the wrong alley ?
Though no one is saying it outright, fingers are pointing to M.K. Narayanan, the former National Security Adviser who was the supervisory authority over the NTRO and the IB in the period that the alleged malfeasance took place. Narayanan, a former IB officer has made great contributions to national security, but his real forte has been “political security”, or gathering political intelligence for the party in power, in his case, the Congress.


Even so, it is worth asking why the NTRO and not the IB? The equipment in question and the taps were technologically trivial. Shohgi communications in NOIDA advertises its SCL-5020 device capable of passive tapping of 16 two-way calls at a time. Such devices are now fairly routine with state police and central law enforcement bodies.
Is the NTRO being fingered to cut it down to size ? It is no secret that neither the IB, nor the R&AW really cottoned on to the idea of a dedicated high-tech agency from which they could task electronic intelligence. Indeed, in his years as NSA, Narayanan treated the agency as a step-child and it was only in the wake of the Mumbai attacks that its long-pending grants for high-tech equipment were cleared. What he did do was to place some top IB officers in the agency. One wonders whether these officers played a role in the impugned episode, if indeed the NTRO was actually involved.
The NTRO has been set up to deal with the larger challenge of technical intelligence which can range from what comes out of the internet to satellite imagery and missile tracking. While there is some overlap with what organisations like the IB, Aviation Research Center and the Defence Intelligence Agency do, the mandate was to set up an agency where expensive assets such as super-computers and high-end space-based sensors could be concentrated. The average background of an NTRO staffer is technical and scientific and they are unfamiliar with the tactical world of intelligence which involves tapping individual phones. If someone has led them up the garden path, it is the duty of the government to find out what happened. It would be a travesty if the incident is used as a pretext to hobble the NTRO.

The MHA has been planting all kinds of stories about how conversations could have been inadvertently recorded. This is not the way interception equipment works. In an area as large as two kilometers square at the heart of New Delhi, there are thousands of calls and SMSs floating around. A portable unit has a limited capacity to intercept conversations and its activities have to be focused on some pre-set telephone numbers.
The manner in which official agencies fight their turf battles can be ruthless and scary. There are three men in jail without trial for the last three years in the so-called National Security Council Secretariat spying scandal. Some of the murky evidence suggests that they are there because they sought to create a computer network for sharing information on terrorism. Afraid of losing its exclusive control on terrorism issues, the IB has railroaded the men.


Telephone tapping in a democracy is always hazardous business, yet as we know it, it happens. Anyone, including the politicians whose phones were allegedly tapped believed that such things don't happen, is lying. At least three of the “victims” have held executive positions in the central and state governments and know that the police can and do tap phones. This is especially true of Mr Advani the former Home Minister who, according to one former Intelligence chief, sought tit-bits of political information gleaned through taps every day.
Going by the legal position, only the Union Home Secretary and his counterparts in the states are authorised to order taps. The reality is somewhat different. Taps take place all the time. Police officials simply lean on the telephone exchange personnel, and pay them off, to conduct what are technically illegal taps, intelligence officers simply do it without a by-your-leave, using equipment that leaves no traces in our digital age. So ubiquitous is the equipment, that a couple of private parties have also acquired it to dig dirt on their rivals.
There are three kinds of intercept activities. The first is for fighting crime, espionage or terrorism. The second is linked to developing a picture of adversary military dispositions. The third, which is unique to India, is to keep the government of the day informed of the activities of the opposition and the key members of the government itself. You will recognise of course, the colonial legacy in this. In British times, the key function of the IB was to track the national movement. Telephone and telegraph taps and interception of letters formed an important part of their modus operandi.


Unfortunately, 60 years or so after the British left, the IB hasn’t quite gotten off this groove. For this, the current crop of political leaders is to blame. They are the people who should have shut down the political wing of the IB, but they have not because every government sees it as a crown jewel or talisman that enables it to ward off the Opposition or dissidents. Sadly, on the matter of political use of the “agencies”, there is only a difference of degrees between India and Pakistan; military leadership makes the ISI cruder than the IB or R&AW.
Intelligence officers will vehemently deny any political intelligence gathering and insist that they work within legal red-lines and that phone intercepts are vital towards gathering evidence of terrorist crimes and warning of potential terrorist attacks. But other countries, too, face similar threats, yet they do not allow their intelligence services to impinge on the privacy of the ordinary individuals, leave alone politicians.
Tapping the phones of US nationals is prohibited in America. Permission only comes through a single judge Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. If he turns down the application, it goes before a review court. There are currently 11 such judges who are appointed by the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Despite this, the Bush administration went ahead and tapped phones of US nationals after Nine-Eleven.
More than legal processes, countries like the US ensure that there is bipartisan political supervision of the dangerous powers that intelligence agencies have. India is the only democracy in the world that has no such supervision.
Technical intelligence gathered through taps and other means is a valuable and vital means of protecting our democracy. But its unchecked use can and will undermine our liberties.
Effective political control and direction of the intelligence services is vital for a healthy relationship between the dark world of intelligence and the society at large. It’s high time such controls were instituted in India as well.
This article appeared in Mail Today April 22, 2010

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