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Spy vs spy: R&AW, IB work at cross purposes

India’s spy agencies are competent, but their information gets nowhere. Starting today, HT begins a four-part series on what India needs to do to prevent future terrorist attacks. The intelligence cycle

delhi Updated: Dec 03, 2008 01:35 IST

Naval Chief Admiral Suresh Mehta on Tuesday publicly declared the navy did not receive any “actionable intelligence” about the Mumbai attacks from the Research and Analysis Wing: In other words, a warning that goes beyond standard alerts, specifying the nature of the threat and its timing.

“I am not aware of any intercepts passed on to the navy,” said Mehta. “Exchange of information with intelligence agencies happens regularly. The navy has acted promptly whenever actionable intelligence has been made available.”

The navy chief’s comments are a repeat of a standard complaint about India’s intelligence agencies: the fuzziness of their data and the speed with which they shift the blame. It all ends in an increasingly insecure country, targetted repeatedly by terrorists in 70 bombings and attacks this year.

The rot is sometimes traced back to 1967, when a nervous Indira Gandhi decided to use the Intelligence Bureau to glean information for political purposes. Among the tasks assigned to the agency was to compile a weekly report on commodity prices throughout the country. Her successors continued this thirst for political intelligence to the point, said one serving IB officer, “that just 20 per cent of the organisation’s focus was on hard intelligence like infiltrating insurgencies and terrorist groups and organised gangs like D-company.”

The increasing number of terrorist attacks on India, culminating in last week’s Mumbai carnage, helped reverse the trend. “But there is almost a generation of men at the ground-level who have only done political intelligence,” the officer said.

Building intelligence capability is at the heart of preventing terrorist attacks. “Nothing provides a higher rate of return when it comes to homeland security than intelligence,” said Frances Townsend, former US director of homeland security, after the Mumbai attack.

The rate of return has probably been falling in the case of India’s spook system. The National Security Council Secretariat has become “a dumping ground for retired officers who are favoured by the government”, notes B. Raman, former head of the Pakistan desk at the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).

Experts divide the “intelligence cycle” into four parts.

The first step is the setting of priorities. Agencies have limited resources and have to choose where to allocate them. Such goals should be set by interactions between intelligence agencies and the political leadership. Intelligence officers all have tales of politicians who tasked them with predicting election results, finding out the headlines for tomorrow’s newspapers and other issues irrelevant to national security.

The agencies aren’t without fault. Despite repeated terrorist strikes, notes Raman in a blog, “presently the R&AW does not have any [terrorism and counterrorism] expertise at senior levels.”

The second is the collection of data. Indian agencies are good at collecting information. Some feel India has become biased in how it collects data. Once famed for their human intelligence capability, Indian agencies are becoming overly dependent on technical intelligence – the tapping of cellphones and emails. This is partly necessity, said information warfare expert Ravi V. Prasad. “Indian agencies showed great skill in placing human operatives in militant networks in the Northeast and Punjab. Islamic terror groups, however, are virtually impenetrable.”

V.K. Singh, an army major-general who served in R&AW, said nearly 80 per cent of the agency’s intelligence was techint. An intelligence officer warned, “We have become addicted to technology, forgetting it is a tool and will not replace human intelligence.”

Ultimately it is the combination of human insight and techint that works the best, said Prasad. An enemy coordinator, for example, was detected when an Indian analyst noted his hotmail account was sending out an enormous number of different varieties of emails but receiving very few in return. It was the behavioural pattern that mattered.

The third stage, data analysis, is the most crucial and where Indian agencies have probably the worst reputation. “One can be neck-deep in information very quickly. Collection is the easy part,” said the Israeli official. “Sifting through the data, separating the bad from the good, connecting the dots – that is the difficult part.”

Indian foreign and home ministry officials are scathing about R&AW and IB’s tendency to flood the system with dozens of vague and contradictory threat alerts. “After an attack they then pick one of the reports and say, ‘Look we predicted it,’” said one.

The final stage, production and dissemination, is hampered by the bitter rivalry between the two main Indian spook agencies. Indian intelligence agencies are competent, said ex-CIA deputy director John McLaughlin recently on TV, “but they don’t talk to each other.”

Bridging this divide is crucial says strategic analyst K Subrahmanyam. “Coordination between intelligence agencies is important. In the Mumbai attacks, this clearly failed.” He proposes that an intelligence coordinator be appointed.