Handicapped intelligence

Print edition : July 16, 2004

A day after the terrroist attack on the Parliament House in December 2001. Sensitive to the growing sophistication and spread of terrorist violence in India, the Saxena Committee had recommended a massive expansion of the Intelligence Bureau's field presence. - KAMAL NARANG

Bureaucratic manipulation and turf wars frustrate efforts to reform the intelligence agencies, which face the challenge of containing increasingly sophisticated terrorist violence.

IN May 2001, an unknown bureaucrat replaced pages 16 to 40 of the Recommendations of the Group of Ministers on Reforming the National Security Apparatus with a single blank sheet. "Government Security Deletion", reads the white page. Words, it is becoming clear, were not the bureaucracy's only victims. More than three full years have passed since the Group of Ministers (GoM) set up to review India's security system in the wake of the Kargil war gave its assent to a sweeping reform of India's intelligence services. Yet, trenchant resistance by the mandarins who man the Ministries of Home Affairs and Finance have shot dead efforts to bring about qualitative improvements in the technology available to the Indian intelligence agencies - and, more important, their training and recruitment procedures.

Led by former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, the GoM recommendations were based on the findings of several expert task forces. The task force on intelligence reforms, arguably the most important of these, had an all-star cast. Led by former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Girish C. Saxena, the task force had at its disposal the services of 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 (NIAS). What emerged from their work was the first definitive review of the problems in the Indian intelligence system and a blueprint for enabling it to respond to the challenges of changed times.

Among the most important recommendations of the Saxena-led task force was that both the I.B. and RAW upgrade their personnel profile to meet the increasingly sophisticated means used by terrorists. "The most vital asset of any intelligence organisation", the still-classified report reads, "is the quality of the personnel manning it. In order to improve the performance of intelligence agencies, it is essential to enhance the quality of the people entering it". Put simply, the I.B. and RAW - which has a particularly unsavoury reputation for nepotism - simply were unable to find the kind of human resource they needed. Resentment and frustration were common, particularly among junior staff. To this end, the report recommended that "incentives should be introduced at every level to motivate officials to do their best".

Underlying this recommendation was the realisation that the I.B.'s field staff - the people who actually conduct espionage on ground in terrorism-related cases - have perhaps the worst terms of service of any police organisation. It can, for example, take I.B. field staff up to three decades to reach the rank equivalent to Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) - well over twice as long as it would in a state police force. Nor do personnel from the IB's own cadre of personnel - as opposed to the Indian Police Service (IPS) staff who make up its senior ranks - receive hazardous duty benefits available to their counterparts in uniformed services, like free rations or access to subsidised canteens. Unsurprisingly, the best of the pool of talent available to police forces simply does not want to head towards the I.B., posing a series of long-term problems.

According to the Saxena report, a two-member committee made up of the RAW Secretary and the I.B. Director was to have made recommendations for improving pay, promotions and perquisites within three months. Three years on, nothing has been done. Resistance from the Ministry of Finance forced both organisations to set up sub-committees to review the entire issue. According to sources, the two-member committee's final recommendations, which are based on the sub-committee findings, will only reach the Ministry of Home Affairs in coming weeks. After this, discussions will begin anew with the Ministry of Finance. Officials in the Ministry of Finance are apprehensive that pay hikes for intelligence personnel could lead to similar claims from other departments. No one has any idea how long the bargaining process might take - or what its final outcome might be.

Delays like these are of a piece with the fate of other key recommendations of the GoM. Sensitive to the growing sophistication and spread of terrorist violence in India, the Saxena Committee had recommended a massive expansion of the I.B.'s field presence. Three elements were key to this process. Inter-State Intelligence Support Teams were to have been set up to aid state police forces by providing modern technology and personnel skilled in espionage techniques. A Joint Task Force on Intelligence or JTFI, was to have been set up in each State, with a counter-terrorism training centre and online access to I.B. data. Finally, a state-of-the-art Multi Agency Centre, MAC, was to collate and disseminate data arriving from field agents in all intelligence organisations. This would have brought it a step closer to acquiring the data-processing capabilities that the western intelligence organisations have had for decades.

Estimates were drawn up in-house by the I.B., suggesting that at least 3,000 additional personnel were needed for the new tasks. In the end, only 800-odd new jobs were sanctioned. The financial constraints cited for this downscaling, however, evidently did not apply to organisations controlled by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), for example, was authorised to raise over 10,000 new men in order to replace the Border Security Force (BSF) on counter-terrorist duties - a transfer which, ironically enough, now stands stalled. The JTFI system exists on paper, but no cash has been made available for centres in which regional police officials may be trained. Nor is there provision for secure on-line communication. If there had been, MAC could not cope: currently run on the I.B.'s internal resources, it will get just 50 additional personnel, who will process data on networked personal computers, not even a low-end mainframe.

What explains this state of affairs? Part of the problem, experts say, is the historic antipathy of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) bureaucrats who staff the Ministry of Home Affairs to the police-led I.B. The Saxena Committee, critically, had insisted that the Ministry of Home Affairs will have to stop seeing or treating the organisation as an "appendage or subsidiary unit". The I.B. Director, who currently has less power than the Secretaries heading major Ministries, was to have wide-ranging autonomy in financial and operational decision-making. As things stand, the I.B. has no say over handling its own budget - its Director, for example, cannot even authorise the purchase of a new desktop computer for his secretary without the approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs' Procurement Wing. The IAS, for the most part, is happy with this situation, as it provides leverage over the I.B.

Other lobbies, too, have been at work. RAW, for example, made progress in implementing the Saxena Committee's calls for improving technical espionage - notably in the sphere of satellite communication interception. Its National Technical Intelligence Communication Centre, headed by former Army officer R.S. `Billy' Bedi, is believed to possess some of the most sophisticated communications intelligence equipment in the world. However, there has been tremendous resistance to the Saxena Committee's calls for more rigorous recruitment procedures. Dozens of officer-level RAW personnel are immediate relatives of senior personnel in the organisation, hired without any written examination procedure - in sharp contrast with the rigorous selection model followed by most overseas intelligence services. Nor has the organisation been open to calls for independent audits of the quality of its intelligence, choosing instead to reject the Saxena Committee's calls for "an honest and in-depth stock-taking of their present intelligence effort".

Meanwhile, the much-advertised Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), which was meant to coordinate the functioning of the intelligence wings of the three services, has turned into something of a pre-retirement holding station. Although the DIA was intended to be responsible to the still-to-be-created Chief of Defence Staff, its personnel are still bound to their parent organisations. Annual performance assets, for example, are written by superiors in the parent intelligence organisations, not the DIA.

In general, insiders say, the Army, the Air Force and the Navy continue to resist sharing information with one another, and intelligence coordination is almost unknown. Based on a secret authorisation issued by Prime Minister V.P. Singh in 1990-1991, the DIA was to have been empowered to undertake cross-border espionage work but in reality has little say in any actual covert work. The DIA Chief, currently Lieutenant-General Avtar Singh Gill, has no powers to demand compliance from the services.

In the final analysis, the problem is political: few Members of Parliament either understand the business of intelligence, or feel concern over its management. Intelligence issues almost never feature in public discourse, except when there is a scandal or a catastrophic failure. Until political leaders actually start making an effort to engage with the issues at stake, and compel accountability, all efforts at reform will remain hostage to bureaucratic manipulation and turf wars.

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