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The tower of Babel

India has no fewer than 16 intelligence agencies dealing with security and another three that deal with economic intelligence. The task of collating all the information they collect is performed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).

india Updated: Dec 07, 2008 00:04 IST

India has no fewer than 16 intelligence agencies dealing with security and another three that deal with economic intelligence. The task of collating all the information they collect is performed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).

The JIC is the third tier of the National Security Council (NSC) — the second being the National Security Advisory Board. The JIC consists of representatives of the army, navy and air force’s directorates of intelligence, the IB, the R&AW, the Border Security Force (BSF), the Centre Bureau of Intelligence (CBI), the National Terrestrial Remote Sensing Organisation, the Signals and Intelligence directorate. It meets every Thursday. The meeting is currently chaired by the head of the National Security Council Staff, and a weekly intelligence report to the government is submitted.

The National Security Council Staff (NSCS) consists of a number of analysts. These should be doing the job of collating the information provided by the agencies and armed forces over a period of time to identify connections, discern patterns and thereby anticipate threats. But in fact they write long papers that no one reads.

The NSC was a brainchild of former Prime Minister V.P Singh, but was actually set up in November 1998 to become the central focus of all strategic planning for the government. Security was only the fourth of its four areas of concern, coming well below ‘political’ and ‘economic’ and even energy. The need for a central coordinating focus for intelligence had been pointed out by the Subtramaniam Committee in 1998, when it said that the agencies passed on less than 25 percent of the information they received. So complete has been the failure of the system that today, according to insiders in the security establishment, they do not pass on even a tenth.

The agencies send junior officers to the JIC’s weekly meetings, and the brief with which they come is not to impart information but ‘to find out what the others know’. The agencies also depute officers to the National Security Council Staff, but they have made it a dustbin for unwanted officers.

The way to give the NSC countervailing power is to bring it directly under a heavyweight cabinet minister. The head of the NSC is the Prime Minister. But since the PM played no more part in its day-to-day work than he does in the Planning Commission, its real head is the National Security Advisor.

In its first year or two, the JIC used to be chaired by the NSA (then Brajesh Mishra). But during the UPA government, it has been chaired by the head of the NSCS. This job was held by Satish Chandra, a former civil servant for the first four years and then by R.D. Pradhan till September 2007. Neither had the clout to make the agencies more forthcoming.

Things took another turn for the worse when, two years ago M.K Narayanan, who had taken over external, in addition to internal, security after the death of J.N. Dixit, appointed three deputy NSAs. The distance between him, and therefore the PM, and the JIC, therefore increased, and the status of the latter in relation to the intelligence agencies sank even further.

According to insiders, two small nails completed the sealing of the coffin. Satish Chandra converted the NSCS into an NSC Secretariat by requiring the staff members not only to present their assessments to him, but also to rewrite their papers after incorporating his comments on the subject. This eliminated the scope for independent thinking within the NSCS and the little possibility that had remained for the airing of diverse opinions.

And the creation of three deputy NSAs has divided not the work, but the staff itself. In an expansive moment, one of them claimed that he was the “single point military advisor to the Prime Minister”. The Armed forces brass’ reaction was: ‘We shall see’.

When the terrorists struck, the country had an NSA who was wholly preoccupied with making domestic and foreign policy on behalf of the PM; deputy NSAs of whom only one, Lila Ponappa, enjoyed any repect in the armed forces; a demoralised National Security Staff split between Ponappa and Shekhar Dutt, the PM’s military advisor, and a joint intelligence council that received next to no intelligence from the agencies and the armed forces.

Add to that the fact that the UP government probably did not forward Fahim Ahmed Ansari’s hand drawn maps to the central government, and we begin to get our first inkling of why 200 people had to die last week in Mumbai.