Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What is so secret about the information even India's enemies know?

What is a secret? Sometimes, it is a conundrum presented this way: The Indian “surgical strikes” across the line of control are a secret at varying levels not only in India, but also in Pakistan. In Islamabad, information on them is kept under wraps because to acknowledge is to lose face. On the other hand, New Delhi is cagey about giving any more details, because they were (a) more limited than has been made out by those who want to use them for political effect and/or (b) so as to keep the impact of the operation within manageable limits and (c) not reveal the modus operandi of the forces.
To further develop this point: In the 1993-2016 period, too, cross-border strikes were carried out, but kept secret. Considering that the enemy who had been hit, knew about them, why did the government of the day keep them a secret?
Likewise, when the government buys equipment abroad, it provides specifications to several foreign companies, yet, keeps them, as well as the acquisitions procedure and processes, secret from the public.

Secrets and secrets

The government generates an enormous amount of information in its daily activity. Some of this information is about future plans, the rest is part of the process of governance – actions taken or to be taken, after action reports, directives, letters, notations, orders and so on. Some of it must be kept confidential or secret for a period of time, otherwise governance would become difficult. Some of it needs to be kept confidential so as not to damage relations with other countries. And then, there is information about military plans and procedures, the capabilities and capacities of military equipment and their deployment, which could aid enemies of the country.
But there are no absolute secrets. Decisions are implemented, directives acted upon, systems selected and acquired and therefore the information about them is known at some point in time, military equipment gets obsolete or so much more sophisticated that old plans change. So secrets are limited in time and value, though there is one category of secrets that are held very, very carefully – that of high level penetrations of the political, military, diplomatic and administrative personnel of a target country.
These are often, literally, kept forever. The reason is, of course, that such a high level of betrayal is punishable by death in many countries. But, more important, keeping their names secret is a means through which the recruiting country assures potential future agents that their betrayal will never be revealed, in other words it is an incentive for recruitment. After all if it is known that a particular country is casual with its agents, it is unlikely to remain in the business of what is known as Humint (human intelligence – covert intelligence-gathering by agents) for very long.
When the British left India, the one thing they took with them in entirety were intelligence files, and you can be sure there would be some very well known names amongst our revered national leaders who were their informants. Likewise, the Intelligence Bureau holds tight the list of its informants in various political parties. Were these lists to be leaked, the IB would be out of the business of political intelligence, which is its real bread and butter.
All parts of the government, especially those involved in security like the armed forces, intelligence agencies, and so on, have a system of ascending scale of classification – confidential, restricted, secret and top secret – which is determined by section officers, under secretaries and deputy secretaries or their equivalent officers.

Official Secrets Act, 1923

The problem often is in defining what exactly is a secret. The vagueness over what is secret begins from the archaic Official Secrets Act of 1923 which was essentially aimed at military threats against India and remains the main legislation dealing with the issue of preserving secrets.
It seeks punishment for any person who obtained “any secret code password, sketch, plan model, article or note or any other document” that could adversely affect the sovereignty and integrity of the country, its security, or friendly relations with another country. Such a person was liable to be punished with three years imprisonment. On the other hand, if this activity related to a military facility, or the affairs of the military, the imprisonment could be up to 14 years.
The OSA’s infirmities have been manifest in many a court decision where the prosecution has fumbled on the issue of defining what is secret. Why do you think that this country has never punished a spy with death or life imprisonment? It is not that we are so patriotic that we have never had a spy or traitor who deserves such a punishment, but that our law is as infirm as our counter-intelligence capabilities.
But while the OSA is clear, and does provide a legal definition, howsoever obsolete as to what is secret, we have no clarity about the sanctity of the documents of the other departments of government, including the Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office or, for that matter, the Finance Ministry.
That is why, you rarely get a prosecution of a person for stealing secrets and that is also the reason that when the police catch low level ISI field agents, they are always alleged to have a diary or maps and sketches with them. I say alleged, because in the era of satellites and cameras, you don’t need sketches and maps to be drawn by some low level operative. What an agent may need is the ability to determine whether a particular bridge or culvert can hold a 50 tonne tank, and none of the agents that are caught have either the equipment or the education to determine that though they can probably purchase the information from the government office where the designs are kept.

Declassification of records

The government of India has taken the progressive view that the public has right to all information on governmental functioning and has passed two legislations – the Right to Information Act in 2005 and the Public Records Act of 1993 to create a practical regime for the citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities. This has been done with a view of encouraging transparency and accountability, but making information public needs to be an end in itself.
However, neither of the acts are working too well. The RTI is being used by people to settle scores, while the Public Records Act is ignored. Because of faulty procedures, many documents, particularly of field formations, exist as functional files and kept only till they are current or useful, and they are destroyed thereafter. The decisions are often made by junior officers with little understanding of the historical value of a particular document or file.
They need to understand the importance of the need to preserve past records for scrutiny after an interval and through the due process of declassification. This enables succeeding generation of government officials an invaluable past perspective on a decision. It also enriches the field of historical research, they offer us a means of accessing our past. Detailed information on past conflicts or decisions is important for the succeeding generation of security officials to learn lessons from.
Separating the routine and the confidential is an important aspect of government policy. Routine information should be easily available to the public, but equally, in the interests of the people, the government needs to work out a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding and declassifying national security related information. It must set up classification standards, levels of classification, categorise classification authority, duration of classification and the process of declassification or downgrading the classification of a document. None of this exists at present.
The government needs to evolve a modern system of classifying, safeguarding and declassifying national security information, if needs be by amending or replacing the Official Secrets Act.
The ministries of external affairs, defence and home affairs have taken up work on one aspect of the Public Records Act – that of creating special record rooms where classified documents can be properly stored. However, they have largely ignored the second, and more important, aspect – declassifying old records and passing them on to the National Archives where they can be accessible to the citizen.
The big problem they face is the issue of declassification. They simply lack the manpower to deal with the issue. October 23, 2016

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