Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Home Ministry's cure for terrorism is worse than the disease

The Union Budget 2011-12 is unexceptional when it comes to supporting the Indian national security buildup. The formula adopted by the finance minister is to provide the sum asked for and add that “additional funds will be made available if required.” Such funds rarely get any public scrutiny, the parliament standing committees, do of course, examine the demands for grants, but in a normative rather than an analytical fashion.  As a result, people are unaware of the wider implications of certain decisions. One such relates to the Rs 39.75 crore appropriated for the National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid).
The challenge in the internal security area has only been seriously taken up in the wake of the Mumbai attack, even though the country has faced terrorist attacks for the past three decades. The post Mumbai efforts involve beefing up the National Security Guard to act as SWAT teams in various urban centres, creating a system of coastal and maritime security, as well as boosting internal intelligence coordination. 

All these are as they should be. But there are some measures which are now beginning to impinge on the rights of the average citizen. Prominent among these is the Natgrid for which some Rs 75 crore have been appropriated in the Union Budget in the last two years.  The proposal to link up all manner of individual information — tax, travel, internet and telecom usage, credit card spending, investments and so on, is the kind of thing that bureaucrats, especially national security ones, dream about. Sitting in their office, and at the press of the button, they can track everyone and everything at all times.
But this is the stuff of nightmares for the average law abiding person. Things would be fine if we had a sensitive and subtle bureaucracy. But we don’t. We have one which is already tipsy on power. While its core comprises of  dedicated and well-meaning persons, a significant proportion — much too large for comfort— are venal and not sufficiently ground in the ethics of good governance.  Trusting sensitive personal information to them is like allowing a fox to guard a hen coop.
A national grid where various intelligence agencies who collect information through various sources share their informationat various levels of classification makes for good sense and will aid  efficacious action against criminals and terrorists. But not the proposed Natgrid.
So far the principle behind the  interception of phone calls and its invasion into the privacy of a citizen is that he or she must  do something suspicious for which the authorities then seek a warrant which is signed by the Home Secretary and his equivalent. The interception  undertaken for a strictly limited period and the records subsequently destroyed.
What is being proposed now is an open ended system where as many as 11 intelligence agencies will be given a licence to trawl through the data banks of telecom and insurance companies, stock exchanges and banks, internet providers and airline booking networks to undertake  a grand fishing expedition which they hope will yield them something.
I am not being paranoid when I argue this. We have, after all, the example of the Radia tapes before us. These tapes were obtained by official sanction and were in official custody, yet they were leaked out. While there is an element of schadenfreude in the discomfort of some well known journalists being revealed as ethically challenged individuals, no crime seems to be evident, at least from the tapes so far released.
 Yes, they refer to lobbying and the craven politics of the UPA government, but that is in itself not a crime. There is considerable merit in Ratan Tata’s affidavit to the Supreme Court arguing that the indiscriminate publication of private conversations did constitute a violation of his constitutional rights.
Most of us will concede that the government needs to have the ability to tap phone conversations to take on organised crime, terrorism and money laundering. But the governments needs to assure us that its minions use the powers in a responsible way. As of now there is nothing in the law, nor the behavior of the government, to convince us that they will do so. 

The Natgrid is the core of the grander plan of the Union Home Ministry to establish a National Counter Terrorism Centre. The scope of the NCTC, as outlined by Union Home Minister in his December 2009 Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture, would be truly awesome — not only would it subsume the Multi-Agency Centre, the Natgrid, National Investigation Agency and the like, but, also, more questionably,  the National Technical Research Organisation(NTRO) and the  the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).
There are two problems here. First, the existing MAC and enhanced security awareness since 26/11 have yet to break up a conspiracy in advance using all the current level of snooping that they have presumably been doing. Consider, on the other hand, the record of UK where several conspiracies have been rumbled in advance with sufficient evidence to jail the conspirators through an open trial.
In India, the intelligence agencies claim that they have disrupted several conspiracies, but none of them at the point where there was enough evidence to enable people to be fairly tried and convicted for their acts. Of course, there are always encounters, but then dead men don’t talk. Given the reputation of the police, these more often than not raise more questions than answers.

The second issue is the scope of the NCTC. The NTRO and the JIC that Mr Chidambaram wants in the NCTC do not only deal with terrorism. Notwithstanding Mumbai, the Union Home Ministry needs to understand that terrorism is not the main threat to the country’s security. They are painful and ugly challenges, but they can hardly damage our system, in the manner an attack by an external state adversary can. The NTRO’s remit, for example, includes ballistic missile defence, or that part of it that deals with the detection of hostile incoming missiles, it also looks at, among other things, the issue of cyber security. Surely these are not subjects that can be supervised by the NCTC.
Actually, the US experience with its NCTC has not been particularly good. The obvious example is the case of Umar Farook Abdulmuttalab, the so-called underwear bomber. Information on his activities was known — the British intelligence sent a report to their American counterparts in November 2009 and his own father met and informed two CIA personnel in Abuja, Nigeria a week later about his predelictions. His name was added to the data base of the US NCTC, but was not sent to that of the FBI that  screened incoming air travelers. On December 25, Abdulmuttalab tried to detonate plastic explosives sewn into his underwear while on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
The obvious lesson here is that the large all-encompassing bodies are not a particularly good idea. In matters of security, as well of systems in general, there is need to build redundancies. In other words, systems where a failure does not end in a  cataclysmic disaster, because there are other systems  there as backups.
 We  need to stop,  think and question the logic of  outfits like the Natgrid and the NCTC which, besides being of questionable utility in fighting terrorism, are also a major encroachment into the very liberties our Home Ministry is supposed to protect.
Terrorism, a major threat, is not the only national security challenge we confront. But it is perhaps the only one which requires discrete and subtle use of strength, rather than a sledgehammer that the Home Ministry is envisaging and the Parliament  unquestioningly funding.
Mail Today March 3, 2011

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