Friday, June 24, 2011

Time to leash India's spy agencies

There is an old Greek saying: Those whom the gods wish to destroy,  they first make mad. I wonder whether it applies to nations as well. If that is so, it would lend the crazy events that have been happening in the country in 2011 with a much more dangerous edge.
It all began quietly with the Lokepal-Jokepal drama where a bunch of civil society activists hijacked the legislative functions of the country’s parliament by getting an old political hustler to go on an alleged fast-unto-death at Jantar Mantar.
Then came the bizarre episode where a  popular yoga teacher and ayurveda entrepreneur was invited to discuss the issue of corruption with senior cabinet ministers of the government and permitted to establish a somewhat dubious yoga camp at Ram Lila grounds.
Then, late one night, it occurred to the government that this could well be a coup à la Tahrir Square in the making and so it pulled the plug. The police was asked to clear the camp, which it did with its customary politeness, and the yoga man was arrested, dressed in a natty salwar kameez.
And now, to top the silly season, we have L’Affaire Pranab—the bugging of the offices of the Finance Minister of
the country.
Make no mistake, that was not chewing gum found at sixteen different locations in the Finance Minister’s offices. In Mail Today here there are a lot of young people, but you are unlikely to find gum adhering to the undersides of our desks; that is strictly for the high schools and cinema halls frequented by the young. If you accept the chewing gum thesis, you are akin to P G Wodehouse’s Madeline Basset who believed that every time a fairy sneezed, a baby was born and that the stars were God’s daisy chain.
Dour babus and corporate heads who haunt the offices and conference rooms of the Ministry are not the kind who would chew gum, and most certainly not those who would surreptitiously stick it on the underside of the desk of the Finance Minister of the country at three different places.

It was most certainly an adhesive which held listening devices which transmitted voice signals to a listening centre nearby. Pranab Mukherjee is not known for levity and would not have written a missive to the Prime Minister complaining of the bad hygiene of his visitors or staff.
Many TV channels, quick to bite a planted story, started putting out that  the bugging operation was an outcome of corporate rivalry. It would boggle the mind to think that corporate spies would be able to penetrate the security of North Block and plant listening devices in rooms which were a stone’s throw away from the office of the Director, Intelligence Bureau.
Ministers’ offices are carefully locked and the key placed in seal. Any breakage would immediately arouse suspicion. The bugs were no doubt planted during working hours, and some of the staff must have been involved. Anyone who has covered North and South Block knows that a certain government agency has a lot of the peons and drivers on their regular pay-roll.
In fact the primary suspect in the operation must be a government agency, or some rogue elements of that agency. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Recall the episode, just last year, when the government acknowledged that some conversations of politicians were “inadvertently” intercepted by a passive listening device of the NTRO. That again was not possible since the device was a portable one and would not simply record thousands of conversations in an area, but only those of targeted numbers. The government’s excuse that some conversations were “inadvertently” recorded stinks as much as the claim that the adhesive in Pranab Mukherjee’s office was chewing gum.   
What would point the needle of suspicion towards the IB is the circumstantial evidence. They have the technical skills, the ability to access ministerial and governmental offices and, above all, they have a record of malfeasance on the score of listening into conversations of citizens since they are not bound by any law. Maloy Krishna Dhar’s Open Secrets: India’s Intelligence Unveiled has listed some of these activities in sickening detail and none of them have been denied or contradicted. The pièce de résistance of his book is the story of how the device to catch telephone taps from the Rashtrapati Bhavan was actually affixed in the Prime Minister’s Office during the period in which Rajiv Gandhi was locked in a conflict with President Zail Singh.
There is a facile assumption, spread by officialdom, that the government only taps phones through a systematic legal process in which permission is granted only by the Union Home Secretary, or his state counterparts, that the process is tightly controlled and conversations recorded are eventually destroyed. Actually, this holds good only for the legal wire-taps which could, serve as evidence, though usually courts are leery of accepting such proof.
The rules don’t apply to intelligence agencies listening to conversations, since there is a presumption that they are doing it for national security, and in that case, specific taps cannot be always requested, and often the aim is to scan the spectrum in the hope of picking up transmissions. There is no statute involved, as is the case in the US, where tapping phones of American nationals, is strictly prohibited, and can be permitted only by special courts, which are the equivalent of our High Courts.
Indeed, there is no statutory guidance to our intelligence agencies on what they can do and what they cannot. Their acts are outside the limited checks and balances that are imposed by Parliament and bodies like the Comptroller & Auditor General. The Executive has no system for systematic oversight of the agencies, and how they behave depends on their supervisory minister and the moral compass of their own leader. It is no secret that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh does not like intelligence chiefs reporting to him, while his predecessor’s principal secretary Brajesh Mishra kept all the agencies under his control. The present situation is somewhat ambiguous, with the IB firmly under the control of the Union Home Minister, the R&AW reporting nominally to the prime minister through the Cabinet Secretary and the NTRO reporting to the NSA.
The problem in India is that even the Opposition never raises the issue of the systematic political intelligence that the IB gathers, in the main through phone taps. This is because when they are in government they use the same machinery to spy on their rivals. L.K. Advani as Home Minister was well known for badgering intelligence chiefs for the latest on his political rivals.
There is now some movement in the demand for parliamentary oversight over the intelligence services. In January 2010,  the Vice-President, Hamid Ansari, made an eloquent and important plea for imposing parliamentary oversight over our intelligence agencies while delivering the R.N.Kao Memorial lecture. India is perhaps the only democracy where no such oversight exists. Constitutional lawyer, Menaka Guruswamy and some others have been active in pushing for legislation to create a legal framework for intelligence services.
Even while the mid-summer madness continues, we must think of these serious subjects. Indians feel a lot of schadenfreude about the state of Pakistan, perhaps they should begin to feel some pain for their own country which is becoming the butt of ridicule around the world.
Mail Today June 23, 2011

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