On intelligence failures

Published : Jul 04, 2003 00:00 IST

The role of intelligence agencies is in focus in the wake of Iraq-related developments. Evolving a culture that respects the autonomy and professionalism of these agencies is the only way to ensure that they are not misused.

THE invasion of Iraq is unique more for the number of problems it has generated than the ones it solved. One may not have to wait for very long to understand the complexities that it has thrown up in the web of international relations. Apart from encouraging blatant and unilateral violations of sovereignty, it could actually usher in an era where the slender and fragile authority of many international organisations operating in critical areas such as human rights, environment, civil aviation, health, and so on, is challenged by even small nations at will and for extracting a price from bigger nations. This is a matter for concern.

While this is so, I am even more distressed at charges flying around the United States and the United Kingdom that either the intelligence agencies in both countries had been browbeaten or their reports had been distorted to justify the two world powers marching into Iraq. I would like to believe that stories appearing recently in the Western media were off the mark, and were, at least partially, inspired. The allegation that a whole lot of agencies - especially the CIA and the MI 6 - had pandered to U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair can send a wrong message to their counterparts elsewhere in the world. We in India should be particularly worried because of the frequently expressed apprehensions - to an extent unfounded - that bodies such as the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had become the appendages of the ruling party, serving its interests.

Having worked for nearly 15 years in the former and observed the latter at close quarters, I can vouch for the fact that these two, barring occasional goof-ups, have done well by us. They have been steered most of the time by men of great professionalism and integrity who have kept the organisations scrupulously away from the country's murky politics. I can say without fear of contradiction that there has hardly been an indefensible choice of a chief for these two intelligence organisations. Successive governments have gone by the book, something that cannot be said of many other crucial public appointments.

Both Bush and Blair have been specifically accused of trumping up intelligence reports to justify the action against Iraq. These reports, in the estimate of to the two leaders, had more than confirmed the stockpiling by Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and this warranted pre-emptive action before the weapons were deployed for destroying the West. Since these weapons were not found either by the United Nations inspectors when they were on the job during Saddam days or by the occupying forces, grave doubts are being expressed as to whether Bush and Blair had invented a story that falsely attributed to their intelligence agencies things they did not say, or they had influenced them to file reports that could be used prospectively to defend their action in Iraq.

The Washington Post speaks of several visits by U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney and his aides to the headquarters of the CIA during the past year. Such visits were rather unusual for a Vice-President and, according to one official, they gave the impression that the Bush government was trying to extract reports that would suit its own objectives. Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria believes that the available intelligence was too "murky" to justify the categorical statements made by the U.S. on WMD allegedly hidden by Iraq. Responding to the criticism, CIA Director George Tenet issued a statement to the effect that his agency never doctored intelligence to satisfy political needs. That a CIA chief went to the press on a sensitive subject like this was indicative of the gravity of the charge and an in-house assessment of its possible impact on public perceptions.

The British press has been no less carping. Also, the Conservative Opposition in the House of Commons was quick to take advantage of the situation by directly charging Blair with misinterpreting intelligence reports to further his designs against Iraq. Quentin Peel wrote in the Financial Times that both governments had used "inconclusive intelligence assessments" to buttress their case for attacking Saddam Hussein.

THE controversy over the role of intelligence agencies in shaping national security policy and the executive use/misuse of their machinery for political ends is nothing new. The clinical approach dictates that these agencies should be content with furnishing intelligence and not meddle in policymaking. Also, being funded by the public exchequer, they will have to be politically neutral and not engage themselves in promoting the partisan interests of the party that runs the government. How far these tenets are practical in the real world is a matter for debate.

First, there is the highly attractive and persuasive argument that analysis and assessment, being two separate functions, should be entrusted to two separate bodies. The problem is that there is only a thin line of distinction, and often one expression is used for the other. The institution of a body dealing with national security known by different names in different countries, owes its origin to an admission that assessment cannot be left in the hands of say, the CIA/FBI, the MI5/MI6 or the IB/RAW in the U.S., U.K. and India respectively. The practices in these three countries are described with great clarity by a brilliant former intelligence official, B. Raman, in his Intelligence: Past, Present and Future (Lancer Publishers, New Delhi, 2002).

There are basically two models. In the U.S. the National Security Council (NSC) was created under the National Security Act 1947. It is organised both geographically and functionally. The NSC Staff (NSCS) work under the National Security Adviser (NSA) reporting directly to the President, the head of the NSC. The intelligence that is received from several agencies and departments, in the form of reports and assessments, is examined by the NSCS and then vetted by several committees - including the committee on intelligence, presided over by the CIA Director - before the NSC formulates its recommendations for action by the President. This is therefore a system of "multi-point assessment and single-point advice". In the U.K., the Chairman, Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) functions as the centre for single-point assessment and single-point advice. Prior to the Falklands war, he was a Foreign Service Officer with other responsibilities as well. The Lord Franks Committee that looked into the intelligence assessment failures associated with the Falklands Operation recommended that the JIC, apart from being converted to a more proactive body, should be headed by a full-time appointee of the Prime Minister with absolute freedom from control by any government department. This was accepted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In India we had a fairly well-conceived JIC until it became part of the NSC system in late 1998 following a Task Force study headed by K.C. Pant. The JIC, which acquired considerable strength after the 1962 Chinese invasion, had many ups and downs. Some appointments to it were weighty, and some others indicated a government desire to emasculate it by dumping those who were inconvenient or did not fit in elsewhere. One factor that militated against its assessment role was its continual battle with the IB, which had direct and instant access to the Prime Minister. Whatever the JIC wanted to convey had either already been told by the IB to the Prime Minister or was too pedantic for a chief executive to plough through. The utility of Director, IB, (DIB) was much more than that of Chairman, JIC, or his reports. Also, on occasions, when it suited the government to ease out a DIB for unknown and unspecified reasons, he was promptly imposed on the JIC, leading to problems of a clash of ego and protocol. Naturally, in course of time, the JIC became a body of limited importance. Its absorption into the NSC headed by the Prime Minister was therefore logical. The bone of contention, however, has been the Prime Minister's decision to have his Principal Secretary as the National Security Adviser. But, as Raman says, this is the prerogative of the Prime Minister, and I believe that even the bitterest critics of Brajesh Mishra will concede that he has played this demanding dual role with great skill and aplomb.

Apart from the NSC Secretariat headed by a Secretary-level officer, we have a National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) consisting of former civil servants and experts from other fields who could contribute to thinking on national security. This Board meets periodically, but its size could militate against focussed discussions and meaningful conclusions. While these bodies have generally brought about a qualitative change to the task of assessment, the role of the Cabinet Committee on Security in providing a leadership role is undeniable. That this should be so even after a carefully considered decision to have an NSC is something that passes one's comprehension.

THE effectiveness of intelligence agencies comes under a scanner whenever a major mishap occurs. The Bay of Pigs operation against Cuba under President Kennedy in the early 1960s, and, more recently, the September 11, 2001 tragedy come to our mind. While the CIA was lambasted for overestimating the strength of anti-Castro rebels, the FBI (which has a domestic intelligence role in addition to investigation of major crime) came under fire in 2001 for not having foreseen the Al Qaeda hijackings and the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. The failure to unearth Iraq's suspected stock of WMD adds to the discomfiture of both CIA and MI6 whose reports were touted to support the action against that country. In India, the Chinese invasion of the North Eastern Frontier Area (NEFA) in 1962 and the Pakistan incursion into the Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir in 1999 triggered open accusations that intelligence had failed the government. Several volumes have been written on all these episodes. An objective study of the reports, prior to the happenings, which were received by government, could indicate that the fault did not lie wholly with the agencies and that a whole range of factors, including a lack of desire to listen to experts continually with an open mind in an ambience marked by seriousness and freedom from the tyranny of bureaucracy, contributed to the unfortunate situation. There was also a hiatus between the producers of intelligence and those who used it in the field. Possibly this is what the Kargil Review Committee headed by K. Subrahmanyam, an expert in the area of national security, meant when it said that there was "no institutionalised mechanism for coordination or objective-oriented interaction between the agencies and consumers at different levels". The Committee hoped that the creation of an NSC would bring about a change in approach. I have no idea of how the experiment is working and have not heard of any meetings of the NSC since its formation. While details of the deliberations of the Council need necessarily have to be held back from the media and public, there is an element of accountability in democracies that warrants an occasional communication on how the new system is working in a language that makes sense even to the common man, for whose benefit national security should move from a fuzzy concept into an understandable reality in day-to-day life.

The dictum that policymaking is the preserve of the executive and that intelligence agencies should not play a role therein sounds good in theory. In practice this is asking for the moon. A CIA Director or a DIB who meets the President/Prime Minister almost on a daily basis is a dumb person if he does not influence formulation of policy. All his inputs on a particular development in some part of the country or on the border could directly or subtly suggest a course of action that might become the flesh and blood of a policy. Here again the distinction is analogous to that between analysis and assessment. I will fault an intelligence official only if he does not give both the pros and cons of a possible course of action, and again, if he is pushing a personal agenda of self-aggrandisement.

Intelligence and investigating agencies all over the world, including the CIA and the FBI, have been assailed some time or the other for working as the handmaiden of the ruling party. The charge cannot be dismissed lightly as it bears an element of truth. The intimate contact between the intelligence chief and the chief political executive, be it the President, the Prime Minister or a Chief Minister in India, promotes this somewhat undesirable consequence. In particular, pre-election assessments by the IB and State intelligence agencies are cited as an irregular and unethical exercise. While such assessments per se are objectionable, whether they confer an undue advantage on the ruling party is doubtful. I also know of politicians who ridicule such assessments because of the belief that such assessments convey only what the ruling party wants to hear and do not reflect field realities. Private sources, especially grassroots politicians, who have a line to the top political leadership, enjoy a greater credibility in our country. One leader who listened more to them than to intelligence officials was possibly Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose demand for speed even at the cost of accuracy of information was something the IB could not cope with.

Perhaps the most serious aspect of the whole debate is the alleged lack of transparency and accountability of intelligence agencies. Of all the countries, it is the U.S. which has paid maximum attention to this need to keep tabs on these agencies so that they do not violate the basic law of the country. Apart from an Inspector-General who formed the internal oversight mechanism reporting directly to Director, CIA, the system was strengthened externally after Watergate and the Iran-Contra affairs in the form of, first, a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and later, a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Also, the Intelligence Authorisation Act, 1990 brought in congressional oversight of the working of CIA's Inspector-General. In the UK, both MI5 and MI6 are now governed by statutes and are subject to scrutiny by an Intelligence and Security Committee appointed by the Prime Minister. Although not a statutory committee of Parliament, its multi-party composition promotes objectivity. While it does not oversee intelligence work, it concentrates on personnel and allied matters which have a bearing on performance. Interestingly, neither our IB nor RAW is the creation of a statute, nor do they have a written charter, as far as my knowledge goes. This situation has been adversely commented upon by many analysts.

Finally, politicians who bay at government for not providing a mechanism to oversee the IB or RAW stop screaming once they go into the Treasury benches. Ultimately, it is not statutes or committees that will stop misuse of intelligence agencies. It is the evolving of a culture that respects their autonomy and professionalism that will ensure this.

This does not for a moment underestimate the desirability of enhancing their accountability through a mechanism that is in tune with existing law and parliamentary practices. I know we have enough men of integrity and foresight both in the political world and in the intelligence community who will not fight shy of a consensus in the matter.

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