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Why politicians won’t get off the line

Just before the 26/11 attacks on Bombay, a technician at the Research & Analysis Wing was monitoring satellite transmissions emanating from the Arabian Sea. Almost by chance, he picked up conversations that seemed to be coming from a dhow heading for Bombay, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Apr 26, 2010 17:15 IST

Just before the 26/11 attacks on Bombay, a technician at the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) was monitoring satellite transmissions emanating from the Arabian Sea. Almost by chance, he picked up conversations that seemed to be coming from a dhow heading for Bombay.

Those conversations, full of euphemisms and codes, were far removed from the sort of thing you would expect fishermen — or smugglers, even — to be discussing. The technician flagged the conversations as being suspicious and passed them on to his superiors. R&AW believed that they were worrying and immediately alerted the office of M.K. Narayanan, the National Security Advisor.

Later, just after the terrorists had attacked Bombay, R&AW technicians noticed that six cellphones they were monitoring had suddenly come alive. These phones used SIM cards that had been purchased in Bangladesh and were believed to be in the possession of terrorists. Though R&AW kept checking on the phones, they were always switched off. Now, on the evening of 26/11, they suddenly came alive.

Those were the six phones used by the terrorists as they set about spreading terror in Bombay. It is because R&AW was monitoring them that we have transcripts of those conversations and evidence of Pakistani involvement.

I mention these incidents because there is, suddenly, a lot of hysteria over telephone tapping. Some of the outrage is justified. According to the new issue of Outlook, the UPA government has monitored conversations between politicians for its own partisan ends. Outlook says that Prakash Karat’s phone was tapped in the run-up to the no-confidence motion in 2008. And in 2007, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s phone was also monitored. And, as has been widely suggested, perhaps Sharad Pawar’s phone was also tapped — which is why the government believes that he was neck deep in the IPL’s sleaze.

Outlook goes on to reveal that many of the original fail-safe mechanisms put in place to guard the privacy of citizens are no longer effective. Intelligence agencies and the police still need to put in a written request to place a phone under surveillance. This has the effect of ensuring that no officer acts on his own initiative and that there is a record of the tapping.

But, says Outlook, new technology allows spooks to directly monitor phone conversations without involving exchanges and service providers which means that they no longer need any kind of authorisation at all.

Fair enough. This is worrying. But it is not the real problem. As technology advances, it will always leap ahead of any legislation meant to regulate it. As advanced as the equipment available to Indian spooks is, it is still not as advanced as the technology available to say, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), both of which can tap any mobile phone conversation in India without any of us even guessing what they’re up to.

The trouble with all uproars about telephone tapping is that they are usually directed at the wrong targets. Technology is a red herring. And an all-out campaign against all tapping as a matter of principle can have disastrous consequences. Intelligence agencies need to be able to tap the phones of terror suspects — as the 26/11 example demonstrates. Similarly, the police need (with more supervision perhaps) to be able to tap the phones of mafia dons, kidnappers, drug dealers and the like.

The real issue, therefore, is not about the principle of tapping or about the technology employed. It is about the motive behind the tapping and the character of those ordering the taps.

If the president of the United States was able to get the CIA to watch his political rivals, then he could be the best-informed political leader in the democratic world. The CIA’s technology (and the expertise of its sister agencies) is such that nothing can stay hidden from it for long.

The fact that this does not happen is partly a tribute to the character of American politicians and partly a consequence of the ethos of the CIA. Even when America was governed by a venal president like Richard Nixon, he was unable to subvert the intelligence establishment for his own ends. (Nixon set up a parallel private organisation called The Plumbers staffed by retired spooks like Howard Hunt for this purpose.)

The problem in India is not that intelligence agencies can tap phones. It is that the men who run those agencies are only too willing to use their organisations for the benefit of their political masters. I pass no judgements about whether the Outlook story is true or not. Perhaps M.K. Narayanan is the father of the new tapping technology as Outlook says and perhaps he did misuse his office to facilitate the tapping of politicians’ phones before the no-confidence motion against his boss.

If Narayanan did so, it would be entirely in keeping with the ethos of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) from whose ranks he emerged. The IB has traditionally been used by the government of the day to keep tabs on its opponents and all methods — taps, personal surveillance, mail monitoring, planting of drivers etc — have long been considered permissible. (It might also explain why Narayanan ignored the intelligence that could have stopped 26/11: he was too busy tapping the phones of Manmohan Singh’s enemies.)

All politicians know that the IB taps phones. Some senior members of the Congress believe that Sonia Gandhi’s phone was tapped by the IB — then run by a shameless National Democratic Alliance (NDA) stooge — during the 2004 elections. The Opposition always works on the assumption that the government is listening to its calls. Senior Opposition figures will often switch to anonymous landlines when they have to divulge important information to journalists.

The reason nobody protests too much is because they all know the rules of the game. Each side taps the other’s phones when it can. Venal politicians order the taps themselves. Virtuous ones are careful never to ask for the details of how the information was procured when the IB submits a detailed report about the activities of the Opposition.

Periodically, infighting within the intelligence establishment leads to leaks about the taps. The press prints the story. TV anchors express shock and anger. Politicians pretend to be surprised. They demand inquiries. They make speeches about privacy. Such phrases as ‘police State’ are flung around.

Then, the story dies down. The politicians wink at the spooks. And the spooks go back to tapping phones.

I would be glad if this controversy led to the emergence of a consensus whereby the more intrusive techniques of intelligence-gathering (tapping, surveillance etc) were restricted to the battles against terror and crime and not misused for political purposes. But I know that nothing will happen.

Things will never change as long as India’s politicians make unreasonable demands of spooks. And as long as there are spooks who are willing to sink low enough to please their political masters, phones will continue to be tapped.

(The views expressed by the author are personal.)