Ever since the Mumbai blasts, the spotlight has been on the abilities of our intelligence services. Purely coincidentally, this has become clubbed with the somewhat farcical mole-hunt set off by Jaswant Singh, and the very real breach of security in the National Security Council Secretariat. Yet a great deal of the criticism has been uninformed, sometimes bordering on the hysterical. The expectation that the country’s secret services should somehow be better than other governmental services is unfair. No one would want disloyal personnel or traitors lurking in their ranks. But surely we cannot expect the intelligence services to be way above the norm, considering they draw their personnel from the same stock as other services in the government sector. Their organisations, tighter than the usual government department, have the same DNA in terms of work culture, problems and prospects. There are pools of excellence, dedication and selflessness in these services just as there are elsewhere. And as in all organisations, a lot has to do with history, as well as leadership.
Actually the root of many of our problems in the area of intelligence lies much higher up — in the upper echelons of our political system. The intelligence agencies must function within the parameters of a country whose political class sees nothing extraordinary in criminals sitting in legislatures, or shrugs off infiltration from Bangladesh. This country’s intelligence culture is evident from two books that appeared this year. The first, the Mitrokhin Archive spoke of high-level penetration and influence-peddling by the KGB in India. It was politely ignored. The second, by a former IB official, detailed the political shenanigans of his organisation, including juicy tidbits like how the PMO was used to bug the President of the Republic. Again, the book and the charge were coolly ignored by the entire political class.
Another instance of how casually matters of security are treated by the politicians: In the late Eighties, when Indian forces were battling the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Tamil politicians, particularly those of the DMK, ignored the activities of the terrorist outfit which was at the time obtaining fuel and funds, and even running grenade factories in the state. Today, it’s not surprising that DMK leader and Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, once again in pursuit of votes, is going out of his way to be soft not only on Islamic fundamentalists, but even those charged with terrorist crimes.
Among the intelligence services, the Intelligence Bureau stands out in terms of reputation. In part this has to do with its inheritance a counter-intelligence culture from the British. Since the Pakistani covert assault against India got underway, the bureau’s focus has shifted to anti-terrorist operations as well. Because India has refused to get into a tit-for-tat terrorist war by bombing and assassinating in Pakistan, the country’s counter-terror tactics have relied on the IB’s abilities to block, deflect and terminate terrorist conspiracies on Indian soil.
This has led to the other service, the Research & Analysis Wing which deals with external intelligence, being deprived of a significant ‘operations’ culture. India has had a poor history in this area anyway because during colonial times, this was an exclusive British preserve. Some limited capabilities were created for operations against China in Tibet in the 1960s, but these are of little use today. This has meant atrophied abilities for covert operations in countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.
In recent times, R&AW has got a bum rap because of allegations of foreign penetration, as in the case of Rabinder Singh and Brig Ujwal Dasgupta. R&AW’s problem is that by its very charter, it is more open to penetration. Its main work lies outside the country and it is responsible for liaison with foreign intelligence agencies. This doesn’t excuse what happened, but explains why it could have, and also points to the problem in need of correction. The IB, for example, has blocked some four attempts at penetration in the past decade or so.
In the past two years, an enormous effort has been made to reform and restructure the intelligence services. Though a Group of Ministers’ decisions were approved in 2003, intelligence agencies used the 2004 change of government to block reform. The process got underway only in mid-2005 because of the sudden demise of National Security Advisor JN Dixit. The appointment of MK Narayanan as his successor has led to a sharp rise in the pace of change in great measure because of his background as a highly regarded intelligence professional. This is evident from the implementation of the approved decisions on restructuring and reform, as well in the creation of newer instrumentalities.
Premier among these is the country’s new high-tech spying agency — the National Technical Research Organisation. The NTRO was created to centralise all high-tech, and hence expensive, assets under one organisation. Predictably, there was a lot of kicking and screaming from existing agencies who had to surrender turf. Narayanan played a key role as the chairman of the Technology Coordination Group to mediate conflicting claims and ensured that the NTRO was able to strike roots in the short span of a year. The agency which will look after imagery and communications intelligence was headed till last month by a the legendary, J.S. Bedi, and now a DRDO specialist, KVSS Prasad Rao, has taken over.
Another significant decision by Narayanan has been to restore the Joint Intelligence Committee. The experience of having the NSCS doubling as the JIC was simply unworkable. While the NSCS is a kind of think-tank, the JIC has vital, urgent responsibilities. Since most intelligence failures turn out to be the result of poor interpretation and assessment, rather of the unavailability of information, the work of the JIC is cut out for it.
The expansion of India’s interests in sync with its economy, and the rapid transformation wrought by the information age, require a revolution in the way we handle intelligence. For one, we will need to spend much, much, more money for electronic intelligence gathering. This money is not only needed to buy satellites, computers and interception equipment, but to have an army of language specialists and analysts. The country’s educational and national security system are, as of now, completely misaligned. We have more than 60 universities teaching Arabic and Urdu, yet there is an acute paucity of skilled Arabic and Urdu interpreters. Despite India’s huge interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan, just one university offers Pushtu language training. Even the existing language schools stress the teaching of culture and literature while the practical need is for translators and interpreters. As for analysts, they ought to come from the various schools of international studies, but there is little link between the academia and the security services. As it is our area studies institutions are abysmal and we do not have even a single decent centre for Pakistan studies.
Recent terror incidents and the intensification of Maoist violence pose new challenges for the secret agencies. Only a part of these can be handled by methods perfected in the past. A whole new set of challenges have arisen with economic growth, demographic and sociological changes, encouraged by urbanisation, easier foreign travel and the internet. They require an entirely new outlook and instruments that are open, and well, at the same time, closed.