Stalled reforms

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

The suggestions made by the Saxena Committee Report on reforming the Indian intelligence apparatus remain unimplemented in the face of bureaucratic resistance and an unenthusiastic political leadership.

A SINGLE, almost blank page represents pages 16 to 40 of the weighty `Recommendations of the Group of Ministers on Reforming the National Security Apparatus'. The only text on it reads: "[Government Security Deletion]."

The sheet contained the recommendations of perhaps the most enlightened document ever written on reforming India's intelligence apparatus. The 244-page paper has been put together by Jammu and Kashmir Governor and former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Girish Saxena, along with former Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath, former Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) chief M.K. Narayanan, former Home Affairs Special Secretary P.P. Shrivastava, former RAW Additional Secretary B. Raman, and R. Narsimhan of the National Institute of Advanced Studies.

The meticulously researched report calls on India's intelligence establishment to take "an honest and in-depth stock of their present intelligence effort and capabilities to meet challenges and problems". It asks for a massive upgrading of technical, imaging, signal, electronic counter-intelligence and economic intelligence capabilities, and a system-wide reform of conventional human-intelligence gathering.

Every suggestion in the Report was accepted by the Group of Ministers, who released their recommendations in February 2001. One might assume that with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Defence Minister George Fernandes, Finance Minister of the time Yashwant Sinha, and External Affairs Minister of the time Jaswant Singh backing the Report, something might have been done. More than two years on, almost none of the tasks listed for realisation in the Saxena Committee Report has been tick-marked as complete.

The Director of the I.B. should have been freed from the supervisory control of the Home Secretary. The Home Minister should have stopped treating the I.B. as an "appendage or subsidiary unit" and granted it financial and functional autonomy. The organisation should have had a formal charter, or government brief, granting it responsibility for the collection and dissemination of all intelligence on internal security and freeing it from political surveillance work and election-related information gathering. None of these has happened.

Nowhere is the problem more evident than in the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC), a state-of-the-art project intended to provide the I.B. and other internal-security organisations the ability to collate and analyse the vast amounts of information that field agents and stations gather each day. Almost unbelievably, the I.B. does not have a computer system that would let it cross-check the names or methods of terrorists or correlate terrorist acts on the basis of their methodology. Therefore, the MAC's importance was immediately understood. Instead of buying expensive off-the-shelf equipment from abroad, Indian software engineers designed a novel and easy-to-use searchable database system. Computers were purchased, office space was set apart in a corner of New Delhi's North Block, and staff were assembled to get down to the task of feeding in data. Then came the stalemate. The Finance Ministry shot down the I.B.'s apparently reasonable demand for trained computer personnel who could run the system, and for funds to pay for periodic upgrading and electronic data storage. The reason was a directive calling upon all Ministries to make staff and expenditure cuts.

Similar axe-wielding has put an end to another key component of the intelligence reform programme, the Joint Task Force on Intelligence (JTFI). The JTFI was supposed to liaise with the Special Branch of the State police and officials of the Criminal Investigation Department, offering them real-time information on terrorist groups and basic education in counter-terrorism. It was the lack of these resources that crippled the Mumbai Police's hunt recently for the terrorists who carried out a series of bomb explosions in the city, since modern-day terrorists routinely move across States and countries.

The JTFI planned to set up five training institutes, in New Delhi and in the four geographical zones of the country. The Finance Ministry shot down the request, asking the I.B. to use overstretched and resource-starved State police training colleges instead. Requests for funds to create a regional online information network that would feed the MAC, a key feature of the Saxena Report, were also shot down. The MAC at least has an office; the JTFI does not have even that after two years of supposed intelligence reform.

JUST why has all this happened? On the face of it, funds are not a problem. RAW has been investing significantly in communications intelligence, particularly in technology that improves its ability to listen to all forms of wireless conversation deep inside Pakistan. It has been upgrading its ability to intercept satellite phone communications, increasingly used by top terrorist commanders in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistani intelligence has known for some time that RAW has the ability to obtain precise latitude-longitude fixes on INMARSAT-based satellite phone sets, since the signals used on these systems are routed through India. However, currently RAW does not seem to have the ability to monitor the new mobile handsets marketed by Thurya, one of which was recovered from the recently eliminated Hizbul Mujahideen commander Ghulam Rasool Khan. The organisation is believed to be working on communications interception abilities modelled on Echelon, a United States-led project that sucks up almost all global communication, like an electronic vacuum cleaner, and then analyses it for specific voices or pre-decided key words, using sophisticated computers.

No one knows how developed RAW's technical capabilities are - people who do will not say - but it is clear that the task is being taken seriously. Observers point out that the organisation's task is aided by the fact that Secretary R., as the head of the RAW is called, reports directly to the Prime Minister and wields enormous clout. By contrast, even the Director of the I.B. is technically subservient to the Home Ministry bureaucracy, a situation the Saxena Committee sought to do away with.

RAW has set up a new technical section, the super-secret National Technical Intelligence Communication Centre (NTICC). Headed by R.S. `Billy' Bedi, a former Army officer who narrowly lost the race to head RAW to C.D. Sahay, the NTICC is believed to possess some of the most sophisticated communications intelligence equipment in the world. Bedi has worked for decades with RAW's technical intelligence operations, and headed for some five years the Aviation Research Centre, which carries out high-altitude photo-reconnaissance over Pakistan.

Even the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), the espionage organisation authorised by the Army's Group of Ministers, is doing its best to live down the old joke about military intelligence being a contradiction in terms. Again, hard information is difficult to come by. However, informed sources told Frontline that the DIA had been involved in the recent multi-crore purchases of sensor equipment, which are being installed along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir.

The sensors, which are being sourced from the U.S. and Israel, are intended to detect the movement of terrorists, based, for example, on the heat that their bodies emit or subtle changes in weight along a given stretch of soil. Although snags in these systems have not been fully sorted out - the LoC, unlike the borders in Israel, is densely populated by livestock, wild animals and civilians - the fact is that funds have been made available despite overall cutbacks in Army expenditure. "No one in any Ministry," notes one senior Army officer, "would dare oppose equipment intended to secure our borders."

Interestingly, there is some evidence that the DIA may be looking to upgrade significantly both its domestic and international capabilities. The Saxena Committee Report suggested the acquisition of DIRT, a controversial software marketed by Codex Data Systems in the U.S. Leaked correspondence between DIRT's author Eric Schneider and Codex legal counsel Terrance Knowles, available online at the intelligence-issues resource website, suggests that the Army was shopping for such equipment as early as 1999.

DIRT, which stands for Data Interception by Remote Transmission, enables keystrokes made on a computer to be passed on to a remote server unobtrusively while the user is online. This defeats encryption technologies, since the actual keystroke, not encrypted output, is logged. Codex claims that DIRT will evade detection by anti-virus software and can penetrate elaborate firewalls, but some computer experts dispute these claims. Critics also say that DIRT is just an expensively packaged version of the `Trojan horses', put together each year by common or garden hackers.

CONTROVERSIAL or otherwise, the fact is that something is happening in the RAW and DIA - a state of motion that stands in stark contrast to the paralysis in the I.B. In all fairness to the organisation, it has made a start by putting into effect those parts of the Saxena Report about which it can do something on its own. Among the major paradigm shifts envisaged in the I.B.'s functioning was the separation of the production of intelligence and its analysis.

Since the late 19th century, when the organisation was set up under a different name, the Bureau has placed emphasis on the analysis of information, relying on the police forces to generate raw inputs. The hard businesses of micro-intelligence gathering, running sources, and producing actionable plans were, therefore, sometimes relegated to the background. The problem was accentuated by the fact that after the creation of RAW, the Bureau was stripped of its technical intelligence assets.

However, intelligence is an increasingly technical game. While Western intelligence agencies are realising the perils of excessive dependence on technical intelligence, the result of the failure to develop traditional spies, Indian internal security work is hampered by the absence of assets that would be considered basic. The Saxena Report suggested that the I.B.'s signals interception capabilities be significantly upgraded to allow it to tune in to communication between terrorist organisations, if necessary by breaking encrypted communications.

The I.B.'s abilities are, sadly, still extremely limited, forcing it to rely on Army- and Border Security Force-generated information that is often focussed merely on immediate tactical issues. There is still no worthwhile code-breaking facility at the I.B.'s command, a glaring gap in an age when even communications sent out on the hand-held wireless sets used by terrorist groups are often encrypted, let alone new communications media such as the Internet.

It is hard to arrive at anything other than a cynical conclusion about why these reforms have not taken place. The stated reason, lack of funds, simply does not hold water, given the vast sums of money being happily spent elsewhere. It seems more likely that the dispute boils down to the old bureaucratic war between the Indian Administrative Service officers, who run the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Indian Police Service officers, who dominate the I.B.

The absurd rivalry between the two services, based on a dispute over how much status half-a-dozen examination marks should vest on a person, starts when young officers take charge as District Commissioners and Superintendents of Police and continues all the way up the ladder. It is difficult to believe that the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Finance would have been equally trenchant in their resistance to the MAC and the JTFI if their counterparts in the Ministry of Home Affairs were more pushy. After all, the Ministry of Home Affairs has succeeded in raising funds for several new battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force, which it controls, without raising any fracas about payroll reduction or fund cuts.

But a far larger problem has to be addressed. In his book Intelligence: Past, Present and Future, former RAW official and Saxena Committee member B. Raman pointed out the real problem plaguing the Indian intelligence set-up. Politicians, he pointed out, were cut off from the work of intelligence organisations, and most of them remained ill-educated about just what they were supposed to do, and were worse informed about what they actually did. Parliament's Standing Committee on Home did receive briefings about the functioning of the I.B., Raman argued, but few of its members had the requisite knowledge to ask tough questions and demand satisfactory answers. The situation suited everyone, including those in the intelligence world, who were happy with mediocrity. Until the political process took intelligence seriously, he suggested, Indian intelligence would never improve. The experience of intelligence reform over the past two years has vindicated the spymaster's predictions.

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