Saturday, May 28, 2011

Flawed Security

It has now been two and a half years since the horrific terrorist attack in Mumbai that took the lives of 166 people and shook the country to its core. The attack also coincided with the last of the bomb blasts triggered by the so-called Indian Mujahideen, a set of radicalised Indian Muslim young men who have since been killed, or are in jail facing terrorism charges. Since then, barring one or two relatively small attacks, things have been peaceful on the terror front.


No doubt our secretive guardians will claim that they have foiled numerous strikes by various terror modules, but their claim can be credited only if they put up would-be terrorists for trial like their counterparts in the UK. Otherwise, it would be safe to assume that the post-Mumbai disruption of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba is responsible for the current lull.
In the wake of the attack, P. Chidambaram’s appointment as the Union Home Minister evoked a great deal of expectations and a lot of hype. But two and a half years later, things are back to what they were in the days of the unlamented Shivraj Patil. Leave aside the “most wanted” list fiasco, the Ministry’s handling of the Maoist insurgency has gone from bluster to whimper. Its handling of the Telangana issue has created a permanent sore on the country’s polity, one which threatens to undermine the well-being of the Congress party itself.
Indeed, a look at the record would suggest that the Ministry is simultaneously suffering from myopia and hyperopia—short-sightedness as well as long-sightedness— leading to a great deal of chaos and confusion in the internal security policy of the country.
Long-sightedness had the ministry think of institutions and organisations like the National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid) and the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) that could overcome the traditional problem of the lack of coordination between the various security agencies of the country. There was also talk of converting the ministry into a full-fledged “internal security” ministry. The short-sightedness, however, has led to poor conception of many of the grand ideas and initiatives taken by the Ministry.
To go by a recent interview of Mr Chidambaram to a national daily, it would seem that the only solution to India’s security problems is the Natgrid and the NCTC. The rationale for the Natgrid—  the integration of 21 existing Central and State databases with banks, insurance companies, stock exchanges, airlines, railways, telecom service providers, chemical vendors etc— is that the current information is not adequately shared and available at the right time to the right person. But what is the guarantee that things will change in the future?
You may be able to access passive information relating to banking transactions, airline ticket purchases, credit card usage. But the chances that disparate agencies will actually feed their human intelligence inputs into the system are bleak. Besides the lack of training, is the  culture of secret agencies which hoard information, sometimes for the best of motives, such as the desire not to expose a good informant.
The NCTC which seeks to merge the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) into a super ministry of security is so obviously flawed, that Mr Chidambaram’s colleagues are having a hard time giving the proposal a decent burial. The key flaw, as is obvious, is the assumption that terrorism is the only threat to the country.
In fact, terrorism, though vicious and deadly, is a small portion of the national security spectrum. It has the capacity of creating great harm and generating huge headlines, but it cannot destroy a nation, the way the NATO intervention and civil war are doing in, say, Libya, or the US did in Iraq. The main threat to national security comes from other states, either individually or in coalitions. That must be the focus of our national security system, and the counter-terror efforts can only be their subset, notwithstanding their current salience.
The job of the NSCS and JIC, for example, is to provide analytical inputs to the government on not just current threats, but future developments as well. Indeed, the NSCS looks into issues like climate change, food security, terms of trade and so on as a part of its job and the JIC into the Chinese and Pakistani orders of battle, the developments in Burma, and so on. As for the NTRO, it is meant to be a high-tech intelligence gathering body that looks at threats in cyberspace, ballistic missiles threats and challenges of space-based weapons etc.
In any case, pre-empting terrorist attacks requires uncommon sophistication. It is not just a matter of stringing together a scenario based on vast amounts of data at the command of the government, but of actually being able to join the dots which have not quite clearly emerged and are in no data base.
This is best exemplified by a case which brought out the limits of the US National Counter Terrorism Centre. In mid-2009, the US National Security Agency picked up phone conversations in Yemen suggesting a terrorist plot against the US involving a Nigerian. A well known businessman in Nigeria walked into the US embassy expressing concerns about his son’s radicalisation and information regarding his fears was sent to the NCTC; separately, the CIA also made a file and with biographical information on the son, Umar Farooq Abdulmuttalab, sent it to headquarters.
 Yet Umar was not put on any no-fly list; he took a flight from Lagos to Amsterdam and then boarded a flight to Detroit and midway, he attempted to ignite a bomb hidden in his underwear. A US Congressional investigation found fourteen specific points of failure ranging from human error to technical problems, systemic obstacles, analytical misjudgments and competing priorities.
As outlined by media reports in India, the concepts of both the Natgrid and NCTC are ill conceived and deeply flawed. Security in a federal polity like ours, with far flung provinces which are constitutionally empowered to handle law and order, cannot be a simplistic centralised affair. It has to be a sophisticated structure which takes into account constitutional law, as well as the historical experience and ground reality in each state.
The resulting system must be interactive and multi-layered, instead of the top-down monstrosity that is being conceived. There is another danger—that of hacking and leakage. Wikileaks which have given so much agony to the US and entertainment to us, are the product of a leak of the Siprnet, a database of secret US diplomatic cables.
 What is the guarantee that sensitive information in Natgrid will not leak all over the place, or be hacked by the formidable Chinese hackers? There is nothing in the statements of the minister or the ministry regarding the need to protect the privacy and rights of the ordinary people. There has been no action against those who leaked the legally intercepted conversations of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia. The government has little compunction in curtailing our liberty, as it has done in the case of the internet recently, using terrorism as a pretext.
Any solution of our internal security scenario must be based on a people-centric approach, rather than bureaucrat-centric proposals. The end product of the work of the Ministry of Home Affairs is to make the lives of individual Indians safer and more secure and our liberties more meaningful.
The idea of a Natgrid and NCTC are fine by themselves, provided they are situated in a wider and more realistic national security architecture, and they are concieved in a more modest framework. They cannot be some super organisations, but must operate as additional work-horse institutions like the R&AW, IB, NTRO, Defence Intelligence Agency etc.
The one thing the recent economic crisis should have taught us is why we must not  rely on institutions that are “too big to fail.” Failure should be built into any organisation where humans are involved. So, smaller organisations, and ones whose functions are deliberately designed to overlap, are a far better idea. If one fails, the other can make up for it. In security, as in banking, there is nothing better than  a healthy degree of redundancy.
Mail Today May 26, 2011

No comments: