Intelligent posers

Print edition : February 02, 2002

Intelligence: Past, Present and Future by B. Raman; Lancer Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi; pages 416, Rs.695 (hardback).

THE best thing about this book, dealing with Indian and international intelligence services, is that it has been written at all. Almost no documentation exists in the public domain of the working of the Military Intelligence Directorate, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) or the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.). That means this terrain has remained outside public scrutiny and debate - a terrain that involves serious issues confronting the services, and indeed the security, of India. Sadly, many of the people who do know enough to spur such a debate and are in a position to join in it have been too busy seeking gubernatorial assignments.

B. Raman's book, as he points out in his preface, "is neither a memoir nor an expose nor an exercise in self-projection and sermonising from the safe sanctuary of retirement". Instead the author, who briefly served in the I.B. before spending two decades at RAW and becoming something of an inhouse legend, poses stark questions. Does the intelligence gathered by the services meet the needs of its consumers? Do the services have a coherent agenda to respond to the transformed security landscape of the last two decades? And how can it be ensured that such an agenda, a blueprint for action, might come about?

Much of Intelligence is devoted to making a serious case for public and parliamentary oversight of India's intelligence services. Raman builds his narrative around the mass of available documentation on efforts to reform Western intelligence services, much of it officially produced. The United States, after a series of political scandals, Watergate for example, and particularly in the wake of the Cold War, launched a sustained effort to ensure that the production of intelligence met actual national needs and that it was done in a cost-effective manner. Central to these efforts were the institutional measures to ensure that those generating intelligence were not the appraisers of their own product.

Oversights by intelligence agencies are obviously problematic. Intelligence agencies simply cannot function if operational details have to be shared with politicians, and a key index of the success of covert operations is that they remain so. At the same time, the services do not function in a vacuum. Unless there is some form of democratic accountability, there can be no meaningful institutional reform. In India, the only known form of oversight that exists is the regular briefings given by I.B. officials to the Parliamentary Standing Committee attached to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The briefings, though comprehensive, are accounts of perceived threats to India, and not of tactics, objectives and overall strategic purpose.

As a result, the agencies have on occasion been able to get away with the most gross kinds of incompetence. It is little known, for example, that the Military Intelligence Directorate has a budget that far exceeds that of RAW and the I.B. Although the Military Intelligence Directorate is in charge of gathering military intelligence up to 50 km from the border, its technical capabilities give it far greater reach. Nonetheless, the K. Subrahmanyam-led Kargil Review Committee (Frontline, February 4, 2001; April 14, 2001) was able to airbrush its stupendous pre-war failures. Nor did the Committee have to explain why repeated warnings from the RAW and the I.B. were given no attention.

Just as important is the fact that there has been no public discussion on the services exceeding their brief. A former adviser to the Finance Ministry, Mohan Guruswamy, alleged in a July 2000 article that the Military Intelligence Directorate was "not averse to some domestic snooping". "For instance," Guruswamy wrote, "it has a blow-by-blow videotaped account of the Babri Masjid demolition, which shows many of those claiming to be passive onlookers and victims of diabolical conspiracy by persons yet unknown in a somewhat different light." For anyone who has been watching the organisation's functioning in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly over the last two years, the allegation is no real surprise.

It is not that there have been no attempts to rectify the situation. The L.P. Singh Committee did investigate the I.B's and RAW's disgraceful record during the Emergency, but successive governments, some of which should have had good reason to go public with the story, have chosen to keep the document buried away. During the V.P. Singh government's short term in office, the present External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, lobbied energetically for some kind of oversight. But once in office, he did not raise the subject. The irony, Raman points out correctly, is that most serving officers would welcome institutional oversight, believing that it would end crass political interference and enable professional functioning.

LAST year, Frontline made public the recommendations of the comprehensive Girish Saxena Report on restructuring the intelligence services (Frontline, April 13, 2001). Although Raman, a key member of the Committee, has been coy about its details, some sad facts are evident. For example, the Committee had wanted that the I.B. be freed of bureaucratic control, its technical capabilities be enhanced, and the analysis of intelligence be separated from its primary production. All these recommendations, accepted by the Union government, were to be implemented inside of a year. But the only action that has actually been taken is that the Special Services Bureau of RAW has been placed under civilian control and moved to the border with Nepal.

The consequences of the non-accountability on the part of the Intelligence Bureau are evident. For example, the Bureau failed to predict the rise of armed terror in Jammu and Kashmir, and ended up having its sources decimated at the outset. The officer in charge then, former RAW chief and now Officer on Special Duty A.S. Dulat, is the Prime Minister's top gun on the State. It is no secret that Dulat, a respected career intelligence official, was responsible for the tragic events of the late 1980s, but no one else has been held accountable either. Similar disasters in Sri Lanka, too, have gone unpunished.

Pakistan, which runs as a counter-narrative through this book, provides the most graphic illustration of India's need for reform and accountability. Its Inter-Services Intelligence, with its single-point focus, has succeeded in making remarkable achievements in technology acquisition and in undertaking successful covert offensives in India and Afghanistan. Of course, the ISI is no model for India - calls to the contrary notwithstanding. The social and political costs of its secret wars have arguably been only slightly lower for Pakistan itself than for the organisation's overseas enemies. But two decades after these wars, India has still not been able to forge a creative and coherent response.

Raman's book should provoke some real introspection on this issue - a cause which the editors of the book could perhaps have aided by making the author's slightly abrupt, point-style presentation more fluid. At the core of India's failed intelligence response to the ISI is the myth that its armed forces have the capability to sweep across Pakistan, and punish its covert war when a certain threshold is crossed. The myth, elevated to ritual white elephant worship in some quarters, stands brutally exposed in the wake of December 13. In a nuclear South Asia, the threshold for a major Indian military response must be near-infinite, even if the forces can in fact achieve the objectives they claim.

That necessitates the shaping of an offensive covert strategy to inflict costs on Pakistan that make it impossible for the ISI to sustain its war. For at least a decade, the issue has been discussed, discussed again and yet again. Raman's work shall, hopefully, start a debate that would lead someone to take responsibility for the task as well.