Under veil of secrecy, elint outfit gobbles funds

Under veil of secrecy, elint outfit gobbles funds

Less spying and more misuse of resources in elite security set-up

Eight years after its creation, the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), which was established on the lines of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and America’s National Security Agency (NSA), is in a mess.

Far from performing the responsibilities it was entrusted with after it was found that the country’s security establishment lacked effective technical/communications intelligence capabilities, the NTRO is battling serious allegations of corruption.

And the lid has been blown off from within: a former NTRO scientist, V K Mittal, has been able to fight his way through the webs of secrecy and official pressure and intimidation to force the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) to institute a special audit which the Supreme Court is now seized of.

According to one estimate, misappropriation of funds in the NTRO is to the tune of Rs 800 crore, which was alloted Rs 9,832 crore in the 2011-12 financial year. The organisation spends approximately 62 per cent of the money on purchase of equipment and maintains a secret service fund of about Rs 36 crore. Most of the procurements were through single tenders.

According to a February 29, 2012 CAG reply to Mittal’s RTI application, the audit body “noticed lack of transparency and non-compliance of rules and procedures in procurement of systems/stores/equipment and deficient procurement management, resulting in cases of excess payment/wasteful expenditure/loss to the exchequer.”

Investigations by Deccan Herald revealed that despite objections from the chief of communications intelligence, senior NTRO officers procured satellite communication terminals worth Rs 18 crore in early 2009 from a blacklisted company, Singapore Technology.

The previous year (May 2008), Mittal, as head of NTRO’s Centre for Communications Applications (CCA) wrote to the then NTRO chairman K V S S Prasad Rao claiming that the use of satellite communication (SATCOM) equipment on board unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was “never a part of the original request for proposal (RFP) or tender” and “hence no technical evaluation was carried out” at any stage by his division.

Although the SATCOM equipment were to be procured from two Israeli companies, Israeli Aerospace Industry (IAI) and ELTA, visits by CCA officers to these firms in Israel yielded little. “In all meetings (at least four times in Tel Aviv) CCA has been requesting IAA/ELTA to give details of the antenna and other systems associated with SATCOM onboard the UAV. Despite our concerted efforts and repeated demands, IAI/ELTA have refused to part with necessary information,” documents in possession of Deccan Herald say.

Alarmingly, the trials of the SATCOM for UAVs, instead of being carried out in India were undertaken in Australia despite strong objections on the ground that the tests should be carried out in Indian conditions. “The offer of trials outside India was firmly turned down by CCA due to various technical reasons in July-August 2007. Hence the rationale for trials oustide India, despite our strong opposition is not clear to us,” the document of May 9, 2008 says.

The main reason why trials (which were to be witnessed by representatives of the Army, Air Force and the Navy) in Australia were not considered feasible was the IAI/ELTA had provided incomplete information about the antenna proposed for SATCOM onboard UAVs. Besides, it was found that the antenna was “suboptimal” and “did not meet the requisite standard of radiation”, and that power amplifiers required modifications “to be able to meet digital modulation requirements.”

Documents in Deccan Herald’s possession suggest that the Israeli companies failed to demonstrate any SATCOM specialisation for the equipments, including electronic intelligence payload for the UAVs, a project that cost Rs 40 crore.

It was after Mittal was served a memo by the then NTRO adviser (in the rank of additional secretary) M S Vijayaraghavan for objecting to the SATCOM equipment deal that he quit the NTRO and blew the whistle on the goings-on in the country’s communications intelligence organisation. Subsequent internal inquiries and special audits by the CAG in January 2010 (the NTRO was outside the purview of any government audit when it was formed) led to the chargesheeting of seven officers.

A retired senior intelligence officer blamed “those in control of the country’s security apparatus” for NTRO’s “miserable condition.”

Under the scanner

* Internet monitoring system (Rs 30 cr)
* Information processing software (Rs 5 cr)
* Satellite communication monitoring system (Rs 30 cr)
* Civil works contract in Dehradun (Rs 40 cr)
* Electronic intelligence payload (Rs 30 cr)

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