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Cover Story

Intelligence Vacuum

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In the age of the long war with non-state actors, the security establishment of a nation-state has two primary tasks - accurate intelligence gathering and targetted operations to eliminate threats. On both counts, India is faltering. In mid-May, within days of the government giving out the list of India's 50 most wanted terrorists hiding in Pakistan, TOI reported that at least one of them, Wazhul Kamar Khan, was living in Mumbai. A few days later, it turned out that a second person on the list, Feroz Abdul Khan, alias Hamza, an accused in the 1993 Mumbai blast case, was in an Indian jail too. Hardly had the dust settled on this when fresh reports surfaced that some others in the terror list may be dead. A final audit may take a while, given the lack of a centralised, real time, well-monitored list of even the most wanted of India. In such a scenario, India has challenges far more worrisome than what has caught the public attention. The intelligence agencies, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA), didn't even know that two of the men they sought from Pakistan for crimes against India were in the vicinity - visible and not hiding in the neighbouring country. Things had come to such a pass - leading to all-round embarrassment that gave Pakistan a handle against India, which only reemphasised its claims that New Delhi had, as always, got its facts wrong - because there was no regular and reliable information exchange between agencies. Instead, there were turf issues galore and certainly no modern systems to stay up-to-date and cutting edge.

Many within the system admit that the recent faux pas was only symptomatic of the larger malaise - a deep crisis engulfing the Indian security complex.

OPAQUE AND WEAK


Always beyond the audit of Parliament, in the shadows of an iron curtain of bureaucratic excuses and secrecy, Indian intelligence agencies have slowly been decaying. Almost everyone with some kind of responsibility in the Indian intelligence set up will have no qualm accepting the reasons behind its dismal performance and record - challenges that range from training and an unwieldy organisational structure to HR issues.

A recent report on Indian intelligence agencies by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) calls for comprehensive reforms that include parliamentary oversight. But true to the realities that dog the intel establishment, the report has now almost been shelved after the think tank was instructed at the highest levels to remove recommendations for parliamentary oversight and some references to specific instances highlighting the problems.

A draft of the report, available with TOI-Crest, says, "There is clearly a growing perception in the media and amongst a widening spectrum of intellectuals and academics engaged in the study of national security-related issues that a rigid and stodgy bureaucracy may have stood in the way of developing or enhancing desired core competence in the field of intelligence operations and analysis instead of using imaginative, unconventional approaches to fight against a natural inclination not to risk or gamble... as India copes with its emerging responsibilities as a global power. "

The study, carried out by a task force set up by IDSA, also had inputs from a roundtable held in August 2010 in which former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra and the late K Subrahmanyam, the doyen of Indian strategic studies, were among the participants. The report - like most officers concerned about the deficiencies in their department - called for more robust recruitment of better quality personnel and improved HR policies, reforms in coordination between agencies and increased accountability.

"We produce unimpressive work most of the time. We need to pull up, " says a senior official, expressing concern about what he calls the "structural defects" visible in the system. He points out that many of the intelligence agencies are beset with the burden of "tepid field operatives", the result of bad HR policies, and ageing field operatives. He adds that a substantial number of field operatives in most intelligence agencies are in their 50s. "They are old, tired and uninterested, " he says. Most of the sleuths, recruited directly into the agencies, have no hope of a promotion or incentive for a job done well.

Many within the system are alive to the problem. One senior official says the intelligence system has to pull out of its present state of over-dependence on IPS officers who come on deputation to senior positions in the agencies. The recruitment directly to the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW ) of UPSC exam qualifiers too has failed to throw up enough recruits - just about half-a-dozen have opted for the RAS (Research and Analysis Service) in the last 10 years. Sources say efforts are underway to overcome these problems but the solution may be several years away. "The reforms that we undertake today will take several years to show results;until then we have to live with it, " one officer says.

A former intelligence officer says that Indian intelligence agencies should begin national direct recruitment through the UPSC, independent of the civil services exam. They should follow what Western intelligence agencies such as the CIA do. Such a publicised independent recruitment would attract a far better quality of candidates, he argues.

Efforts of recent years, especially after the Kargil conflict of 1999, at intelligence reforms have not really produced very impressive results. The National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), set up post Kargil, is mired in several controversies even before take-off. On the one side are allegations of its reckless deployment of off-the-air GSM interceptors to listen in on mobile conversations. On the other side are allegations of serious problems with its procurement and recruitment policies. A secret audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General completed recently has thrown up many serious irregularities in NTRO, sources say.

BIASES AND SHORTCUTS


As ageing field operatives and officers on deputation take charge, there are also several other issues that have taken deep roots into the system. One of them is the Pakistan obsession of agencies of a country that is aspiring to play a global role. "Because of such an obsession we have come to neglect a lot of other crucial areas. For years, we ignored Africa and Latin America;today they have become probably more important than Europe, but we are not equipped to strengthen our footprint there, " one officer argues. "We have to get out of our Pakistan obsession. "

Such a streak, which also has a religious undertone to it, is perhaps the reason why the Indian intelligence set-up completely missed the rise of a Hindu fanatic group that carried out sophisticated bomb attacks. Many officials within the system are still angry at the way a dominant section bulldozed their opinion saying all terrorism was by Muslim groups. This bias remained firmly in place months after bombs went off in Malegaon in 2006 and 2008, and in the Samjhauta Express and Mecca masjid in 2007. "This bias is very clearly visible in the Most Wanted List. Anyone wanted in India, and missing, is thought to be in Pakistan, " an officer explains. He had been among those tracking the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and its leaders such as CAM Bashir, who too figures in the 'list of 50 hiding in Pakistan'. But the fact is that all inputs have shown Bashir to be living either in the UAE or Saudi Arabia;there has never been any indication of him being in Pakistan.

The deadly mix of bias and shortcuts is dragging some very fine work done by the agencies. Intelligence officers say that on several occasions sensitive investigations into major terrorist strikes have been compromised mid-way because of unnecessary political pressure and the inability of agencies to stay the course and conclude a professional probe. "In the initial days after the train bomb attacks of 2006 in Mumbai, we had developed a couple of significant leads. But within days the local police created a fantastic false story and all the real leads were lost in that fantasy, " one of them adds.

Former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief Ajit Doval says the proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and Natgrid (National Intelligence Grid) would significantly improve counter-terrorism operations. NCTC should not be a new bureaucratic setup, but must be created by amalgamating existing mechanisms like the Multi-Agency Centre and other adjunct intelligence arms focused on terrorism, he argues. "It should become the nodal agency for counter-terrorism, " Doval says, adding that it could actually be a part of the larger IB set-up. Convergence must be the intention and that could help reduce bureaucratic overlaps and blunders.

Coordinating with the present intelligence structure for preparing the Most Wanted List and other sensitive investigations are federal investigation agencies CBI and NIA. While both these wings suffer from significant shortage of trained hands, the CBI has also shown itself up to be a highly politicised agency. The CBI's poor conviction rate is among its worst kept secrets. Though it claims a conviction rate between 65 and 70 per cent, it is a fine play of numbers. Even if only one of the many accused in a particular case is convicted, the CBI counts the entire case as one in which it ensured conviction. Also, it only counts the first stage of conviction, at the trial court stage, and not later stage appeals where many cases fall flat. Worse, the CBI also adds to its hit list cases where the accused strike a deal, getting away with a mild punishment after confession. The blunders in the Most Wanted List are, therefore, not a surprise given these realities.

THE WAY FORWARD


Advocates of Natgrid argue that had it been operational the agencies would have had access to live information, thus ensuring that the Most Wanted List blunder didn't happen. "Natgrid is not a magic wand, but it definitely would have helped avoid the kind of embarrassment we saw in the case of the Most Wanted List, " says a senior official aware of the proposed Natgrid architecture.
Such goof-ups could be further lessened if there is added impetus to bring forth the proposed NCTC. Of course, many are worried about the fresh turf battles that could break out. "Between a Natgrid and NCTC there is no scope for India to send such a wrong list, " argues a senior official.

There is a host of other reforms that have been in the freezer for a long time now. This includes police reforms and modernisation, some of which would significantly help revive the beat constable system, plugging on to the foot-soldiers of intelligence gathering. The de-politicisation of police forces resulting from the police reforms would also help improve the quality of intelligence.

Over and above all that is the growing chorus for parliamentary oversight for intelligence agencies. The argument finds support from, among others, vicepresident Hamid Ansari and Congress spokesman Manish Tewari. "More oversight, better performance, " says a senior official, supporting the move. Doval says a sweeping parliamentary oversight won't actually help. "You could look at parliamentary oversight for production and systems of intelligence agencies, but not for processes. The processes of intelligence can only be understood by someone from inside or with several years of exposure to it, " he argues. For processes, he says an audit by someone appointed by a parliamentary panel may work.

Within the government too many advocate the need to bring intelligence agencies under parliamentary oversight. Agencies have until now fended off all such effort. It needs to be seen if they can continue to protect their secretive turf in a chaotic democracy where even a government funded think-tank report on intelligence reforms is unable to see the light of day.

Reader's opinion (9)

Nagesh RajanFeb 29th, 2012 at 00:52 AM

The way forward is to consult the existing and retired IAS, IPS and other services personnel to know if they are aware of such people who are willing and interested to serve the country and safeguard it. Despite the shortcomings our agencies are still doing a lot of good work.

Sandeep KJun 10th, 2011 at 15:56 PM

A real eye-opener!

Sudarsan SrinivasanJun 6th, 2011 at 03:48 AM

thereshould be clear cut reforms,both in human intel as well as communiation intel. just NATGRID alone will not do.human intel has become more important.remember abbotabad ops.with vested interests like IPS andregular cadrepers playing one-up games, reforms has become all the more urgent.

Kanchan ChatterjeeJun 5th, 2011 at 18:18 PM

What is needed is to bring in fresh thinking into the entire thing..Intelligence is definitely the fourth arm of the Armed forces and arguably the most important one. We could have a open National Aptitude exam for recruiting Intelligence Officers..and then also campaign for these roles.

Vaibhav KawaleJun 5th, 2011 at 17:50 PM

Real intelligence have no threat,wakeup spirit and innocent curious mind who never chit because they have no any threat regarding with speech,body language etc.I told that person name who subjected to the part of conspiracy,that you have to reveal if you are curious,as i heard him on TV MR ramdev

Ashish GuptaJun 5th, 2011 at 12:20 PM

The recent gaffe done by our intelligence agencies presents to the world ,the lacunae in our intelligence department.It could have been avoided if the agencies were more serious or accountable. It's high time the indian govt seriously ponder upon it.

Viplav KumarJun 4th, 2011 at 18:33 PM

Though, I may not be a right person to comment on this topic, these are my views:

There is no mention of CCTNS - a powerful tool for data collection and sharing from the grass root police stations - that on which the government is spending huge amount of money.

Tej PathakJun 4th, 2011 at 18:01 PM

Even a man in the street know what is wrong. The question is are we ready to bite the bullet of reforms and professionalism alongwith accountability.
The Politico do not want to neither do the bureaucrat nor the IPS.
So lets stop lamenting -

Anurag SehgalJun 4th, 2011 at 11:15 AM

It seems, we know everything and dont do anything about it ! wow !

 
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