Reforms in intel agencies

AWAITED FOR LONG : The first challenge for intelligence reforms in India is to provide an appropriate legal basis to the agencies.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed veteran intelligence officer Ajit Doval as his national security advisor, much was expected in the field of intelligence reforms. Some hoped for follow-up action on a private member’s bill for intelligence reform placed in Parliament by former information and broadcasting minister Manish Tiwari.

Modi has repackaged and gone ahead with several UPA initiatives but intelligence reforms have not been one of them. The Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyses’ (IDSA) task force on intelligence reforms is also gathering dust like the Naresh Chandra committee’s report on defence and security related reforms.

That is indeed surprising for a government that claims to prioritise national security and favours a tough response on issues like terrorism. ‘Surgical strikes’ can never be surgical without precise intelligence. Their effectiveness does not merely depend on technology-provided details  like location, strength and movement but on quality human intelligence on aspects like enemy morale and intent (or change of it).

Launching a ‘surgical strike’ from a hi-tech war room is a great photo-op but unless the impact of the strike and possible impact on enemy decision-making is accurately gathered from `Humint’ (human intelligence assets) and professionally analysed, it would serve little long-term operational purpose.

Many Indian intelligence professionals have opposed parliamentary oversight because they feel our politicians are not yet competent to handle sensitive information like the US Senate Intelligence Committee does. But the legendary IB-RAW (Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing) spymaster late B B Nandy had strongly pitched for parliamentary oversight because he felt that it could ensure quality performance, acco­untability and most importantly, integrity in use of considerable secret funds.

The first challenge for intelligence reforms in India is to provide an appropriate legal basis to the agencies. The government should consider separate laws for the different intelligence agencies considering their focus and tasks. In the case of Harman & Hewitt vs UK, the European Court of Human Rights observed in 1992 that the ‘lack of statutory basis could be fatal for the claims of an intelligence agency to justify that its actions were in accordance with the law’.

All major intelligence agencies have been provided with appropriate legal status despite their clandestine origins: the CIA’s legal bedrock is the National Security Act, 1947; the Russian FIS has the Law on Foreign Intelligence Organs, 1996; the British MI-5 and MI-6 are based on the Security Services Act, 1989 and the Intelligence Services Act, 1994, respectively.  It is time India’s IB as well as RAW and other such agencies have a comprehensive legal basis.

The RAW’s former special secretary Rana Banerji, who headed the IDSA task force on intelligence reforms, had pointed out that though some aspects of intelligence activity remain outside the purview of the RTI Act, any further denial of legal status to these agencies could jeopardise their future operations.

The second challenge would be to systematise intelligence recruitment. For far too long, our intelligence has depended on the Indian Police Service to provide the intelligence leadership of the country.  It is time to have a national secret service, selection to which should be through a separate UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) exam that tests subject knowledge, language skills and intelligence aptitude. 

Doval has rightly said that Indian intelligence officers lack sufficient aggression — the aptitude tests could check that out among the aspirants. The toppers could be absorbed by RAW as it deals in foreign intelligence, much like the Indian Foreign Service absorbs the civil service toppers. The rest could be sent to IB and the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

A separate part of the entrance should be for technical services like NTRO (National Technical Research Organisation) and such other agencies that can be designed to attract the best of the technical talent for defending India. This is not to deny the service some IPS officials — like Doval and Nandy — have rendered to Indian intelligence. But it is time to break free of its police legacy and institutionalise recruitment and training to create world-class spy agencies.

Specialist talent

The RAW was once ridiculed as `Relatives and Associates Wing’ but that must stop once and for all. There must be some scope for induction of specialist talent for cells like nuclear issues. They must come from the best available academic talent in the universities and not from the ‘relatives and associates’ pool.

Selection should be followed by quality training  at different levels of the service and also periodic integrity checks to avoid Ravinder Singh-type defections or Unnikrishnan type honey-trap inspired double-cross. An intelligence agency is only effective when it is not penetrated by a rival and to ensure this, systemic checks and balance systems must be in place. Waking up to a threat only after the horses have bolted is no good. Also, our agencies should also have sufficient aggression in dealing with renegades as much as when dealing with the opponents.

The third challenge is to design a structure for oversight covering executive, legislative and financial domains. Quite a lot of best practices across the world are available for our lawmakers to sheaf through — but finally, the system in place should make sense to Indian conditions.

If India has to adopt a tough neighbourhood policy, as Modi promises to, the quality of our intelligence services will hold the key to success. Without competent intelligence gathering and operational capability, there is no way India can walk the tough talk. There is no magic in this business.

Assets in foreign countries take time to develop. It is the same in sensitive conflict-ridden parts of the country. Much of the output depends on case officers who handle these assets and the systemic oversight (in-house and external) which looks out for discrepancies. Without structural reform to ensure quality intelligence, India’s tough talk on national security will remain a pipedream.

(The writer is a veteran journalist and author)

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