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The truth is out there

No intelligence input is infallible. One has to proceed with the best lead to protect the country's interests and be prepared for mistakes in the line of duty. Vikram Sood writes.

india Updated: May 21, 2012 21:46 IST

Was there an intelligence failure recently? The answer is, perhaps, yes. Is this the first time such an incident has happened? Certainly no. Could it happen again? Unfortunately, yes. So was there egg on their faces? The answer is no. This is because what happened was in the line of duty. Let us reverse the argument and say that the same information had been accurate and a major incident/catastrophe had been averted. There would have been no public reference to the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) and the world would have moved on. In this case, there has been some embarrassment and, hopefully, there will be some course correction. So let us also move on. Is the R&AW or any other intelligence service infallible? The answer is no. Is the R&AW competent? The answer is yes. Does it need continuous reform and upgrading? Of course, yes.

An intelligence officer has to deal with whoever gives him the best information, the best lead, and the best way to protect his country's interests. The man or woman providing this may be a true patriot, an idealist, a businessman, a military general, a mercenary who sells his information to the highest bidder, a criminal, an arms smuggler, a counterfeiter or anyone who wants to take revenge on the system. These emotions and motives are not steady or constant. Thus an impeccable source today may be a renegade tomorrow. A trusted source today may become a double agent tomorrow or a loyal intelligence operative will turn rogue. This is the constant dread of any intelligence officer because there is no defining moment when this will happen, till it is too late. Further, there is no such thing as complete and infallible intelligence. If it were, there would have been no 9/11 or 13/12 or 26/11. The point is that the best intelligence will not prevent wars but can help win them. This is something we must understand before we go ballistic about intelligence failures.

Intelligence collection is not a single-source activity; there are multiple sources of intelligence. A single report may be, although not necessarily so, and especially in this Lashkar-e-Taiba case, based on a number of inputs from human intelligence, technical, electronic and communications intelligence. It may also have an input from cyber intelligence. There may be times when all have to be matched. There are other times when all will not match but the information is vital, potentially serious for the country if true but still not verified.

Yet there is just not enough time to verify the authenticity of the intelligence given. So what does the intelligence agency do? It passes this on, with whatever caveat attached, because if the intelligence is withheld for confirmation and turns out to be accurate with devastating consequences, then this would be a graver failure. Thus, faced with such a situation, not only is an intelligence agency advised to report it, it is mandatory that it should and should continue to do so in the future. One only hopes that the country's intelligence services do not now go on the backfoot and become defensive about its reporting that surely was one of the purposes of this sting.

Our problem also lies in intelligence coordination and downstream handling of intelligence generated elsewhere or by central agencies. Another aspect is that the R&AW does not report to the state authorities but through filters at the Centre where the report is processed and passed on for action. One does not know about the route of this report and the source but that this was a sting operation is accepted. Any mature nation would quietly work this back and see where it went wrong.

No intelligence organisation in the world is blameless or has not had its share of errors of judgement. Indeed, there is no organisation in the world of any kind that has not made worse mistakes but in our country the principle of negativity is so strong, especially at present, that we are prepared to believe the worst about ourselves. No one has even bothered to wonder how the three names were publicised so quickly in Pakistan. We all exulted that it was our scoop about our incompetence.

Had we understood the game, consulted those who were in the game and then believed them, before rushing to print then it is possible the intelligence game would have become more difficult. Instead we made it so simple for the opposition because of our preconceived negative perceptions. We still do not know if this was a smokescreen while the real infiltrators are elsewhere. For a country that has spent an awful lot of energy and time demonising R&AW as an omnipotent force to suddenly turn around to show it as incompetent, must arouse some curiosity.

It would be useful, as it would give a better perspective, if some of us read 'The Ten Biggest American Intelligence Failures' by Uri Friedman (Foreign Policy, January 3, 2012). Friedman starts with Pearl Harbour and ends with Iraq and includes the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Indian nuclear test. These are real failures that made a difference to policy and marked the difference between success and failure of policy. What happened in our case was a blip, a day's work, par for the course and the agency must move on.

Malevolent wrongdoing deserves censure, mistakes in the line of duty deserve consideration and rectification.

Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 21, 2012 21:43 IST