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Why India needs an intelligence revamp

By Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)
December 01, 2009 14:17 IST
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The Indian security set-up should look at the way the American security is organised and learn from it, says Brigadier S K Chatterji

An Indian lament all along, and especially since Kargil when Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir to create fortifications leading to a limited war, has been the weak structure of our intelligence apparatus. Its telling insufficiency has been experienced most appallingly by the people of Mumbai.

To recall a few of those gruesome experiences, even as we go ahead and do what we are the best at, bury our dead and move on, is necessary sensitisation for the reader before the core issues are dealt with.

In 2003, Mumbai recorded two attacks. The first one was on April 13, when the mangled remains of 13 people were retrieved after a bomb blew up in a commuter train. A few months later, on August 25, a car bomb accounted for 60 more. By July 11, 2006, the terrorists seemed to have developed a far superior network. 

Seven bombs blew up in trains and railway stations leaving behind a terrible head count of 160 men, women and children. Less than two months later, on September 8, though Mumbai was spared, 32 people were killed in a series of explosions in not too distant Malegaon. The tsunami was experienced on September 26, 2008, when Islamist terror proved its reach and we finally perceived how fallible our intelligence community is.

The broad structure of our intelligence consists of the Research and Analysis Wing mandated to look after external intelligence, while the Intelligence Bureau looks after internal intelligence. The former operates under the ministry of external affairs while the later is under the home ministry. The defence ministry has the Defence Intelligence Agency, and the intelligence agencies of the three services. Of the three services, only the army has a dedicated cadre of intelligence officers and personnel below officers' rank. There are other intelligence establishments like the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, the Coast Guard etc that come under various departments/states.

It would be pertinent to take a look at the American model that has been able to keep the country beyond the reach of Islamist terrorist groups like the Al Qaeda despite being global jihad's prime target. The remodelled structure of the US intelligence community post 9/11 consists of the Office of Director of National Intelligence at the apex.

The Department of Defence is the big player in the intelligence circuit. It has the National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency. The Central Intelligence Agency, unlike most other intelligence agencies that serve a particular department of the government, functions independently. Its focus is primarily external intelligence. The Federal Bureau of Investigations is both a law enforcement and an intelligence agency. The FBI's focus includes national and trans-national organisations, terror groups, weapons of mass destruction proliferators, narcotics and criminal enterprises. There are 13 major intelligence agencies with the community being given its strategic direction and priorities by the DNI.

The US system has obviously worked, while ours has repeatedly fallen short. It would be useful to study the systems simultaneously to arrive at the antidote our system requires. First and foremost for any organisation to achieve efficiency, remains staffing. The FBI and the CIA have their own cadres. They are staffed by hardcore professionals who spend most of their years of service in grappling with intelligence issues.

While we do have dedicated cadres for R&AW and IB, our organisations have a share of police officers deputed to these organisations. The density of policemen increases at the higher rungs.

At the apex, rarely is a man from the cadre found. In sharp contrast, the US model doesn't leave the business of intelligence to policemen. Further, at the top there are no policemen, perhaps. CIA chief Leon Panetta's credentials include service in the US Army, practice of law, being elected to the US Congress and the White House Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton. The Director of National Intelligence, the patriarch of the US intelligence community, is retired admiral D C Blair who had led the Pacific Command and is respected for his ability to run vast organisations.

The next big issue is intelligence sharing. Multiple agencies with overlapping charters are necessity in the intelligence activity. However, inter-agency sharing of both raw inputs and analysis is essential. The common norm in any agency is to pass an information up their channels first, before it is shared with another relevant user. In short, horizontal sharing of intelligence at various parallel levels, is often not too efficient. In the bargain, actionable intelligence especially at tactical and operational levels, becomes dated and distorted. Further, turf battles and one-upmanship between agencies is common in most countries. The problem exists in the US also. The office of the DNI has an Intelligence Co-ordinator to address the specific issue of inter-agency sharing. Currently the National Security Council Secretariat is the one that oversees the function in our case. In restive states the Joint Commands undertake the task. The Multi Agency Centre also serves the purpose. However, there is a need to have a more empowered apex body to ensure smooth lateral information traffic.

What the India intelligence community requires is a national intelligence grid with its databases, collated information and analysed intelligence evaluations, classified as per their security implications that can be accessed by officers of various agencies as per rights of access accorded to officers of various ranks. The NSA Secretariat could be the controlling authority.

Technology is an important issue in intelligence upgrades. Before the war in the Gulf started in 1999, the US had launched adequate satellites to ensure its surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities provided the necessary inputs to its armed forces. We are obviously not in the same league; however, with the threats gaining momentum, technological upgrades cannot be delayed any further. In fact, if we have to count as a regional power, we need the capability to provide intelligence to our neighborhood states also.

Accountability is another important aspect given the short shrift by quoting secrecy. Such an approach leads to loss of efficiency. In the USA, even the National Security Agency is accountable to a Senate Select Committee for Intelligence, amongst a host of others. The CIA too, comes under purview of the Senate Committee. In our case, agencies like the R&AW have to answer to none. Simultaneous with accountability is transparency. A greater degree of transparency, without sacrificing national security needs also to be defined.

The last issue is that of budgeting and mandates for various agencies. These aspects need a degree of debate. Currently, our military intelligence agencies are limited in operational reach and serve at best a tactical objective. In the US, the CIA, DIA and the agencies of the three services consume the maximum budget. The military agencies run their own collection means even abroad. For most countries the Defence Attaches play a substantial role in building the intelligence picture. Our military intelligence agencies need the capability to supplement R&AW in its endeavours, atleast in our immediate neighborhood, where military capability assessments are of greater import.

Counterintelligence within the national boundaries, as far as military agencies are concerned, needs to be jointly pursued by both civil and military resources. This too, cannot be restricted to cantonment areas by the Military Intelligence agencies, but be pro-actively undertaken, albeit with civil intelligence organizations in the loop.

The sudden appearance of the National Investigative Agency, has not satisfied any professional as a viable solution. The necessity remains providing the organisations already functional with the right leadership, allowing them to function without interference, sharing of intelligence, holding them accountable, bringing in a greater degree of transparency, and, most of all an apex body that coordinates with dynamism.

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Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)