Intelligence services, national security, Intelligence Bureau, RAW, policing, assets, surgical strike,
The first challenge for intelligence reforms in India is to provide an appropriate legal basis for the agencies.

To add muscle to national security talk, intelligence reforms a must

With just over a year left for the Modi government to complete two terms in office, it is time to ponder over its lack of initiative to undertake reforms to overhaul the country’s intelligence services.

It is one thing for the nation to feel good about serials and films like ‘Mukhbir’ or ‘Raazi’, but quite another to have in place world-class intelligence services to consistently handle national security threats competently in a dynamic global environment.

When Modi prioritised national security after taking over as prime minister, many hoped for follow-up action on a private member’s bill for intelligence reform placed in Parliament by former I & B minister Manish Tiwari. But that did not happen. The Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyses’ (IDSA) task force report on intelligence reforms is also gathering dust.

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This is strange because ‘surgical strikes’ can never be surgical without precise intelligence. 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 purpose.

Appropriate legal status

The first challenge for intelligence reforms in India is to provide an appropriate legal basis for 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 Intelligence Bureau (IB) as well as RAW and other such agencies have a comprehensive legal basis.

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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.

Systematic recruitment

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 Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam that tests subject knowledge, language skills and intelligence aptitude.

NSA Ajit Kumar 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 Intelligence Bureau and the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

A separate part of the entrance exams should be for technical intelligence services like the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) that can be designed to attract the best of the technical talent for defending India.

This is not to suggest that some police officers do not make good intelligence officers. India’s best spymasters like RN Kao, K Sankaran Nair, PN Banerjee and Ajit Doval all started off in the IPS. But no important global power reserves the top echelons in its intelligence apparatus for policemen, many of whom move back and forth between central intelligence agencies and state police.

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Take, for instance, former R&AW chief PK Hormis Tharakan, or the slain hero of 26/11, Hemant Karkare; such examples abound. It is a huge waste to train a police officer for policing, then to train him or her for intelligence work only to find out that many cannot deliver or are keen to revert back to their state cadre to become police chiefs or take charge of central para-military organizations like BSF. Since the bottom of the agencies are made up of direct recruits, the top should now break free of its police legacy.

There must be some scope for the induction of specialist talent for cells like those dealing with 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 that, check 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 have sufficient aggression while dealing with renegades as much as when dealing with opponents.

Case for oversight

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 ultimately, the system in place should make sense in Indian conditions.

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 spymaster, late BB 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 IDSA report suggested that extensive reforms must be carried out in the recruitment and training processes of intelligence personnel, their pay structures and career progression to attract the best talent available in the country. The recruitment to these agencies, it was advised, should be broad-based so that domain experts from different areas of science and technology, infotech and communications could be brought in, rather than reserving the top echelons of these agencies exclusively for members of the Indian Police Service.

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According to the IDSA report, the vexed issue of the relationship between civilian intelligence agencies and armed forces should be put on an even keel so that there is greater interaction between the two segments of government apparatus. There should also be a single authority exercising supervisory and other control over intelligence agencies. It could be the national security adviser in a modified role, a director of national intelligence, or even a minister for national intelligence answerable to Parliament.

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If India has to adopt a tough neighbourhood policy, as Modi promises, 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 mere cliché.

(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author of five books on South Asian conflicts.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)

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