Indian Intelligence: Awaiting Still Its Tryst with Destiny
A K Verma (Member, VIF Advisory Board)

Indian Intelligence is frequently in the news, often for the wrong reasons. It is a favourite kicking target for a large number of those who compulsively articulate, like the media, political leaders, academics etc. Why should it be so when its stellar contributions to national security have quite often been praised by different Prime Ministers at different times in India’s history? A public acknowledgement of the services rendered is also indicated by the Padma awards, bestowed on Intelligence personnel from time to time.

But there is no denying that the system suffers from many fault lines, some systemic, some a legacy of the past but most due to reluctance, express or implicit at various levels in the power structure of the country, to bring about a change. It is the cumulative mindset, operating at the cutting level in the country which is mostly responsible for this dismal state of affairs. Also, the mindset does not or perhaps cannot change in a few short decades. National security has never been a hot issue with the people at large as evident from several public polls conducted in the country. Removal of the fault lines, therefore, remains a low priority. The episodic prominence the subject receives now and then has proved incapable of influencing the frozen channels in the subconscious.

For any State, Intelligence is a prime necessity, not only to know about adversaries but also about friends, so as to remain fore warned about their intentions and capabilities and to prevent surprises. It is a multidimensional complex activity but its basics remain the same, collection, analysis, counter intelligence and covert actions. A fair idea about the functioning of Indian Intelligence can be made by examining how well it is equipped for handling these four sectors.

Collection is a three pronged exercise, each arm performing a distinct role. Published information provides the bulk of intelligence, close to 80%. Well researched articles and books and field journalists not only prove invaluable source of key facts, they also provide reliable insights into any situation a country maybe interested in. Advent of computers now makes recording, indexing and retrieval of such information a lot easier but if the organization is not computer savvy, a good part of such information would fail to get stored. One suspects that such skills are still to be universally acquired and mastered in the world of Indian Intelligence. If this is correct, it bespeaks of a handicap at the starting level itself.

Technological and scientific means invariably produce intelligence of high accuracy. The gadgetry required for technical collections is very expensive and the state of art equipment is not available in the market. Investigations into Mumbai 26/11 events reveal that intercepts of Voice over Internet Protocol conversations between the terrorists in Mumbai and their handlers in Pakistan had to come from foreign agencies. States share intelligence in absolute self interest and not for considerations of ethics, morality or law. Imagine, if foreigners had not been the victims of 26/11 carnage, the requisite information in all probability have remained hidden from Indian authorities. Selective concealment is an acceptable reality of the Intelligence world. At no stage in the past India’s collaborating partners had disclosed to India anything about Pakistan’s ongoing nuclear weapon development programme and China’s stellar role in it when it was widely known that this programme directly targetted India.

The solution lies in having an in-house research and development capability with an extremely high powered technical staff, second to none, that can work on dedicated technical requirements of the Intelligence. It calls for a very high level of funding; something which is not very kindly looked upon by the fund managers of the country. The alternative is to tie up with governmental and non governmental hi-tech institutions to look for answers.

The key to the highest grade of Intelligence is held by human sources to raise whom a great deal of focussed attention, ingenuity, daredevilry and deep pockets are necessary. It is not a job of a run of the mill kind which can be performed by anyone. A successful operator, capable of recruiting high net worth human agents, has to belong to a rare breed. Identifying such potentially gifted operators and enrolling these into Intelligence then becomes a matter of incentives and competitive remunerations.

This area has been a long standing weakness of Indian Intelligence. The problem dates back to the dawn of Indian Independence when many of the legacies of the British colonial rule were uncritically accepted and passed on down the line. The British had created a steel framework to rule the country and a police system which, among other things, kept watch on nascent political trends. The steel frame attracted gifted individuals, scholars and thinkers because of the extraordinarily high compensation package. The prime tool made available to the police was repression. There was no comparable incentive for a bright Indian to join its ranks, except that of getting employed. The steel frame had lorded over British India. The legacies continued after the British left. Even today the rule exists that ensures that no member of any other service can overtake his IAS colleague of the same seniority in emoluments or rank even if he is a genius. Then why should the Indian Intelligence attract the best when it is required to exist at an inferior level? In point of fact it does not. The results that get produced, therefore, are matching the caliber that is to be found in such establishments today.

This problem can be fixed only by the political managers of the country. India now finds itself in a very complex national security environment, requiring intelligence to become the first line of defence. Men who work in it must have the capacity to develop the highest levels of professional values and solid leadership qualities.

Centuries ago a Chinese sage, Sun Tzu, admonished: “Nothing should be as favourably regarded as Intelligence; nothing should be as generously regarded as Intelligence; nothing should be as confidential as the work of Intelligence”. To produce Intelligence of this order, service in Intelligence must be made as attractive as the British had made their premier colonial service in India. Intelligence organizations of other countries run their establishments on this paradigm. They often are the best paid organizations in their own country. The CIA is reputed to attract the highest number of PhDs from the best schools into its ranks, as compared to other US organizations. The terms and conditions of service, apart from the opportunities of work, serve as a magnet to pull the talent of supreme quality among whom will be engineers, management specialists, scholars, bankers, scientists, economists, sociologists and academics. In India, unfortunately, it is only the second grade that thinks of gravitating towards Intelligence. In recent times, even this category is not offering to look at Intelligence as a career. A revolving door policy as in the US should also not be ruled out to draw in expertise and eminence.

Another negative factor is that Intelligence in India has no locus in law, especially for those who work in foreign Intelligence. India’s Intelligence agencies have not been created by Acts of the Parliament. The entire range of foreign operations is covered by just executive instructions. An instruction to operate in a foreign country ipso facto implies a requirement to break the local laws but no legal authority exists for issuing such instructions or indemnifying the would be violator under the laws of the home country. This is a very serious lacuna which does not seem to have caught the attention of anyone in authority. As the law stands today all those who issue such executive instructions and those who carry out these instructions in a foreign country to spy and steal secrets can be held accountable under the Indian laws. Foreign Intelligence is the only organization directed by the Govt. to violate the local laws of the country of operation but the Govt. does so without enjoying any legal authority to do so. This state of affairs is reflective of the apathy in which Intelligence is held in India.

Analysis comes in the picture to make a sense from collected raw intelligence in juxta position with publicly available data. It interprets the pooled information and comes up with likely scenarios of what may happen. This exercise has to be meaningful because Government’s policy decisions could be based on them. In fast moving contexts like an ongoing terrorist engagement, speed of the analysis becomes a key determinant to catch the action. However, the process as it takes place has serious flaws.

These arise from a mistaken apprehension that intelligence will seek to overtake the role of policy making or even replace it. In fact intelligence has no commanding part in the making of policy. On the other hand the policy maker has to set the agenda for intelligence to work on so that intelligence becomes custom produced. However, intelligence support to policy makers becomes more meaningful if it is allowed participation in policy debates, told about gaps in knowledge and encouraged to disclose constraints on intelligence capabilities to close these gaps, and focus its analysis on policy issues and options under scrutiny. If such opportunities are missing, intelligence works in the dark, benefiting no one.

Years ago in an article by me the role of the analyst was described in the following words: “A good intelligence analyst is an asset to the national security apparatus. In the intelligence organizations in India, analysts work for several years at the same desk and are therefore able to develop a much better insight and expertise in their fields than those serving other wings of the Government. Although not infallible, sound analysis can often point to the likely course of events. It takes into account all the information available, secret or published, mentions what remains unknown if it is relevant to the issue under study, describes the reality of the facts stated, indicating guardedly of how they were obtained, and transparently and cogently explains the logic of the conclusions and estimates it projects. The analyst’s expertise serves as the backdrop to the inferences drawn; the deeper his experience, the more value he can get out of the data assembled to make his submissions of likely scenarios of the future. When the analyst is tasked in the context of national security by the policy maker, his study is lifted out of the academic realm and becomes a basis for choosing a course of policy”.

Indian Intelligence can boast of having in its ranks many excellent analysts with deep expertise and insights but it is not certain if full use has been made of them. There is hardly any culture in the country requiring policy papers to be prepared on national security issues, with participation from intelligence, diplomats, military specialists, scientists etc., detailing likely scenarios and examining the pro and con of each. Kargil and Mumbai 26/11 demonstrated the pitfalls of absence of coordinated analysis. Where coordination is called for between the centre and the states to deal with an internal security problem in a cohesive manner, the Indian Constitution can become sometimes the stumbling block as powers stand delegated to the states some of whom may disagree with the Centre’s approach. In the face of such differences the tasks of Intelligence become even more difficult. Dealing with Naxalism is an issue which proves this assumption.

The quality of Indian Intelligence analysis has been applauded by foreign intelligence partners. Senator Claiborne Pell, former Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is on record, stating that Indian analysis of developments in Afghanistan in the late 1980s was the only accurate indication available to the West, of what was happening there.

In the Indian system the operations officer and the analyst often double up for each other. In small outfits this may not be a serious handicap but as organizations grow larger, the two streams of intelligence should have their own dedicated cadres for best results.

Counter intelligence prime functions are identifying operations and agents of foreign intelligence organizations, and protecting the secrets of the State from penetration through use of human agents and technical means like bugs, monitoring, surveillance from space, interception of communication channels etc. Lack of national awareness generally for the needs of security makes the task of counter intelligence more difficult. Dangers arise equally from hostile and friendly agencies, driven by the operational necessity of discovering protected information.

Results from counter intelligence have been a mixed bag of successes and shame. Over the years counter intelligence has been able to unmask several of the Indian agents of all the major intelligence organization of the world. The shame lies in the fact that it could not prevent foreign penetration even into their senior ranks. Actual truth may be more hurting. There is a general belief in the country that the influence of foreign intelligence organizations has reached deep into the civil society. Suspicion was cast once even on a Prime Minister. Due to various reasons exposures of highly placed Indian moles has always proved to be a daunting task.

The field of counter intelligence has exponentially grown with the advent of international terrorism. This phenomenon poses a multidimensional threat of mass destruction through acquisition of a nuclear device, mass disruption of communication systems through cyber attacks, ideological brain washing through selective interpretations of religious doctrines, and jehadi military style attacks at random on people and key sites. Countering such terrorism has to be a composite exercise requiring participation, apart from intelligence, of other organs of the state such as armed forces, state police, crisis management groups, paramilitary directorates and science and technical communities among others. Countering ideological indoctrination in a sustained manner is perhaps yet to kick start in the country. It is not that the dangers are not realized but extraneous factors like vote bank politics relegate the issue to the lowest priority.

Since terrorist organizations which work on the cell system are extremely difficult to penetrate, good preventive intelligence may not be easily forth coming, despite the best efforts of the intelligence agencies. Because of large numbers of what can constitute a target it may not also be possible to provide effective perimeter security to every single target. If terror attacks like Mumbai 26/11 continue, sooner or later the authorities will have to decide and declare the policy steps which should compel their sponsors to weigh the costs involved. A new counter terrorism architecture in the country, aiming at better analysis, coordination and prevention, can at best remain a good defensive exercise but the need of the hour may turn out to be offensive rather than defensive tactics.

In offensive counter terrorism, the intelligence and armed forces will have distinctive and definitive roles. They may have to work together on the lines of the CIA and US military command that have been jointly handling Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nations are no longer squeamish about employment of covert techniques though specific operations may continue to be shrouded by the mystique of deniability. Nations seem willing to use any tool of statecraft to strengthen national security though the arm chair liberal or the abstract human rights activist may raise objection on grounds of ethics and morality. The Indian State in the past was not hesitant in using such instruments. This is widely known. But one cannot switch to covert actions overnight. Long preparations are necessary. If “all options” are being kept open to deal with the vicious terrorist threat from across the borders, it will be proper to give a green signal to the intelligence now to make its covert plans. Pakistan is proving to be an enduring threat. A redefinition of national interests will bring out that India needs to move out of its self created soft image and to entrust the Intelligence with a new range of responsibilities to become more secure.

Even otherwise Intelligence needs to develop new perspectives as globalization advances, defining a new permissiveness in political environment, creating opportunities for newer forms of economic penetration and triggering fast technological changes which render borders meaningless. After the demise of the Soviet Union the World has been left unipolar but the equation of balance of power remains far from settled. In Asia, the rivalry between three rising entities, China, Japan and India, each of whom will be competitively looking for new markets and new sources of resources, can become acute. The national security architecture worldwide remains shifting in a kaleidoscopic pattern, recreating all the time, newer axes of conflict and conciliation. Add to them the hunger for land and water, symbolized by refugee flows and mass migrations, and differing international concerns for climatic changes and ecology. Correct analysis and assessment of trends over a vast spectrum has become a national necessity to keep the country’s interests safe and secure. Knowledge now is the new coefficient of power and Indian Intelligence must keep step with such knowledge.

The current systems are unlikely to match the challenges that have emerged. Drastic reforms are necessary to unshackle Intelligence from its rigid bureaucratic mould and to invest it with a dynamism and innovative spirit which should be the hallmark of an unconventional organization. The very first step of reform should begin by giving Indian Intelligence the backing of legislative enactments. The laws should provide a degree of autonomy which frees intelligence from all bureaucratic restraints and controls relating to financial management, administrative functions, pay scales, recruitment, posting and promotions, hire and fire policies and enforcement of discipline. The laws should spell out the charter and authorize the Central Government to fix broad targets within the charter. This will prevent misuse of the institutions by those in authority. The laws should hold intelligence accountable to the Cabinet or its committee for security but also create a parliamentary committee for oversight. Detailed rules can be worked out to determine the parameters of oversight and areas of intelligence work over which it will be exercised, in consultation with the parliament. The laws should give the right to the Govt. to authorize any kind of covert action and keep all such activities outside the ambit of oversight. The process of oversight and accountability can be expected to keep intelligence on its toes. However, even after such reforms, errors due to human frailties and intellectual stubbornness will not all disappear but their numbers can be expected to be far less.

There is a new area of activity which Intelligence must consider if it has not already done so. Outsourcing which globalization has promoted has a good potential for intelligence work. The Japanese corporate world and intelligence have cooperated with each other over the past several years with both reaping good dividends out of such collaboration. The US is believed to have taken major steps in this direction. According to one estimate the US Intelligence community invests 70% of its budget on its joint ventures with American Industrial Complex. The Indian corporations are also traversing the multinational route. One may expect overtures to them will be rewarding to intelligence.

One last word. Is there any way that can measure the depth of devotion and commitment of Intelligence to the national cause? The following anecdote can be a revealing guide. At the height of Afghan resistance to Soviet Union in 1989, the situation in Kabul became so dangerous that the US, British and other Western countries withdrew their Ambassadors and staff from the country. Our foreign office and Ambassador wanted to follow suit, Intelligence included. Intelligence refused. While others came back to Delhi, Intelligence remained at Kabul to continue to fly the Indian flag over the Embassy in Kabul.

Article published on dated 25th June 2010
Author is former Chief of RAW

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