A case of intelligence failure?

Print edition : October 25, 2002

A reprisal was foretold. But the possibility of a strike in a temple against innocent people was probably not foreseen.

THE performance of the intelligence and security agencies with regard to the terrorist strike at the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar was one of the topics touched upon by Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister L.K. Advani when he inaugurated the annual conference of Directors-General and Inspectors-General of Police in New Delhi on September 29. "He complimented the security agencies for providing an early breakthrough in the case which clearly pointed to the attack being not merely an act of terrorism, but of cross-border terrorism... Pointing out that the oft-quoted charge of intelligence failure against the intelligence agencies had become too cliched, he said their sources were doing reasonably well. But the absence of specific intelligence input made it difficult for the government to take any action." (The Hindu, September 30, 2002)

NSG commandos coming out of the temple after their operation.-

This is not the first time that the Indian intelligence community has solved a terrorist crime within hours, identified those responsible for it and brought them to book. They had done so on innumerable occasions in the past. The most notable examples are the action against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) squad which assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and the success in solving the Mumbai blast case in March 1993.

A common complaint against security agencies in countries confronted with the scourge of terrorism is that they are brilliant in investigating terrorist acts after they have been committed but they often fail to prevent such acts. U.S. agencies have been confronted with similar charges after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and are currently facing a Congressional investigation in connection with the matter.

It would be unfair to the agencies to say that they are not able to prevent acts of terrorism through timely intelligence. For every successful act of terrorism, there are at least half a dozen that are thwarted by the agencies either through timely intelligence or effective physical security. Details of many of these are often kept outside public knowledge in order to ensure that sources are not compromised and the modus operandi followed by the agencies is not revealed.

Despite this, it is natural that public opinion would judge the agencies not by their unannounced successes but by their well-known failures. There have been plenty of failures in India. Such failures were either due to the lack of precise intelligence or the inadequacy of follow-up action when such intelligence was available. Among other incidents, the lack of accurate intelligence contributed to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE in 1991, the Mumbai blasts in March 1993 and the Coimbatore blasts in February 1998. The abortive attempt to kill Rajiv Gandhi at Rajghat in 1987, the Purulia arms drop in December 1995 and the attack on Parliament House in New Delhi on December 13, 2001 are notable examples of security failures despite the availability of prior intelligence.

Indian intelligence analysts are excellent in their evaluation of likely terrorist threats. In 1989, long before the LTTE mounted its attack on Rajiv Gandhi, the agencies had assessed that there was a likely threat to his life from the terrorist outfit during his travels to the South. Similarly, after the widespread anti-Muslim disturbances in Gujarat earlier this year, many analysts including this writer, had warned of the possibility of a major act of retributive terrorism in Gujarat.

One is given to understand that similar warnings had been issued by our agencies, indicating the likely targets of retributive terrorism and underlining the security precautions to be taken. Most of the potential targets identified were reportedly associated with the Gujarat government, the Union government and sensitive sectors of the economy. The possibility of a terrorist strike in a temple against innocent members of the Hindu community who had nothing to do with the government was probably not foreseen.

Even if such a possibility had been anticipated, the security agencies would not have been able to prevent the attack unless they had precise intelligence as to when, where and how the terrorists would strike. The fact that the terrorists managed to carry out the assault on the temple would indicate that no such intelligence was available.

Accurate preventive intelligence comes from communication intercepts, moles planted in or recruited from inside terrorist organisations and members of the public. Communication intercepts would be available only if the terrorists use modern means of communications. Penetration of terrorist organisations is an extremely difficult task. It is easier to access the sensitive establishments of an adversary such as Pakistan than a terrorist organisation. It poses ethical problems which are not appreciated by public opinion. If an agency plants a mole in a terrorist organisation, its leadership would first ask him to carry out a killing or some other similar act to test his motivation. If the source comes back and asks his handling intelligence officer whether he should kill in order to establish his credibility in the terrorist outfit, the handling officer would be faced with a severe dilemma. He cannot authorise such acts in the hope that future terrorist attacks might be prevented.

There cannot be a regular flow of preventive intelligence without the cooperation of the community to which the terrorists belong. Is it reasonable to expect the agencies to get such information if political leaders continue to hurt the feelings of the minority community through words and action, rubbing salt into their wounds and causing further alienation? If no such assistance is forthcoming from the public, the political leadership is as much responsible as the agencies for the failure of intelligence in internal security matters.

In other countries, every instance of perceived intelligence failure is followed by an exhaustive inquiry to establish how the breakdown occurred so that corrective steps can be taken. There is currently a Congressional investigation into allegations of intelligence failure with reference to 9/11 and President Bush has indicated his intention to order a similar inquiry by an independent body.

Prior to 1999, there were hardly any steps taken to ascertain why an intelligence failure occurred during the Mizo revolt of 1966. The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) studied the 1999 intelligence failure that made the Pakistani intrusions possible. The Special Task Force on the revamping of the intelligence apparatus, which followed the KRC, went into the need for follow-up action recommended by the KRC. However, it did not specifically address the equally important question of perceived intelligence failures in terrorism-related matters. Unless and until we establish a tradition of setting up an inquiry into each instance of a major intelligence or security failure, we will never be able to identify our deficiencies and correct them.

Every country gets the intelligence agencies it deserves. Very few Indian political leaders and Members of Parliament have genuine expertise in counter-terrorism related matters. Hardly any time is devoted in Parliament to an objective and professional discussion of the capabilities of our agencies in this matter.

Is it any wonder we keep tottering from one disaster to another?

B. Raman is a former Additional Secretary of the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.

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