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Intelligence agencies must learn to coordinate, improve capacities

comment Updated: Dec 25, 2014 22:45 IST

The world was again reminded this week of the value of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, whose efforts to create more open societies at great personal risk will eventually strengthen institutions in democracies, including their security services. Classified documents disclosed by Mr Snowden provided the opportunity for New York Times, ProPublica and the PBS to investigate the failures of intelligence agencies concerning the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.

Intelligence agencies will have no doubt evaluated what went wrong after the Mumbai attack, but open disclosures like this can generate purposive public pressures for governments and bureaucracy to act on.

We now know that a lot went wrong. Intelligence agencies directed high-tech surveillance on important terror suspects but were working in parallels. The British and Indian agencies were tracking Zarrar Shah, “technology chief of the Lashkar-e-Taiba”, but were not coordinating with each other. The Americans missed acting on the tip-off from the wife of LeT’s David Coleman Headley who told officials that the latter was an American terrorist conducting mysterious missions in Mumbai.

No one agency had a complete picture of the emerging plot, all agencies missed Headley even while tracking Zarrar. The US warned Indian officials several times that an attack was imminent but they lacked “specific information about the timing or method of attack”.

One hopes that intelligence coordination with other countries is a lot more streamlined now after Mumbai, particularly since the LeT is reckoned as a genuine global terror menace which deliberately targets Western nationals. This is imperative owing to the problems (and opportunities) that big data poses to intelligence agencies. Technology allows massive levels of intrusion and generates enormous volumes of data but that is scarcely a guarantor that plots will be uncovered. Data needs to be analysed in real time, pursuing relevant leads and connecting the dots.

Governments like India not only need to cover shortfalls in recruitment to intelligence agencies and other security forces, but they ought to place high priority in developing professionals who can sensitively analyse data knowledgeably and sensitively, with ideally a proficiency in language, an awareness of context and a facility for conscious disavowal of stereotyping. Poor professional judgement is ultimately counterproductive in the sphere of law enforcement.

And following from Mr Snowden, surveillance regimes must operate within rigorous legal frameworks that balance the competing values of privacy, security and technological advancement. It is a difficult conversation, but one that India must have before a whistleblower comes along.