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Will Chidambaram be the internal security czar?

December 24, 2009 15:54 IST

While a revamp our internal security architecture is needed, an all powerful home minister may not be such a good idea, writes strategic expert B Raman.

Delivering the 22nd Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture at New Delhi on December 23, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, who is inter alia responsible for dealing with indigenous as well as externally-sponsored threats to internal security, outlined a series of measures for revamping our internal security architecture. These measures, if implemented as outlined by him, would make the home minister the internal security czar of the country.

The concerns nursed by Indira Gandhi and other senior members of her Cabinet such as Jagjivan Ram over the inadvisability of an over-powerful home ministry led to a series of actions by Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao to create a decentralised structure for internal security.

Indira Gandhi used the criticism from the defence forces regarding the inadequate performance of the Intelligence Bureau during the 1965 Indo-Pak war and the 1966 revolt in Mizoram to set in motion a series of measures to decentralise the architecture and strengthen the primacy of the prime minister in supervising and co-ordinating the functioning of different wings of this architecture through the mechanism of the Cabinet Secretariat headed by the cabinet secretary functioning directly under the prime minister.

Among the various decentralised wings, which came into being since 1968 and were placed under the Cabinet Secretariat were the newly-formed (in 1968) Research & Analysis Wing, the Directorate-General of Security and the Aviation Research Centre simultaneously removed from the control of the IB, and the newly-created National Security Guards and the Special Protection Group, which is responsible for the protection of the incumbent and past prime ministers and their families. Even before 1968, the Joint Intelligence Committee was under the over-all control of the prime minister who exercised his or her supervision over it through the cabinet secretary.

The tenure of the National Democratic Alliance Government under A B Vajpayee (1998-2004) saw new additions to this architecture in the form of the revived post of National Security Adviser, the National Security Council Secretariat and the National Technical Research Organisation. The NSCS was made part of the Prime Minister's Office and placed directly under the NSA.

In pursuance of the recommendations made by the various task forces set up by the NDA government for revamping the national security capabilities after the Kargil conflict of 1999, the NSA was entrusted with the over-all responsibility for operational supervision of national security management and intelligence co-ordination, with the cabinet secretary's responsibility confined to administrative co-ordination and management. The fact that both the NSA and the CS functioned directly under the prime minister facilitated the two working in close co-ordination with each other and there were no conflicts of jurisdiction and responsibilities between the NSA and the CS.

The country's national security architecture -- whether relating to internal or external security -- cannot remain static. It has to constantly evolve in keeping with the evolving threats to national security. All past changes in the national security architecture since 1968 were preceded by a detailed study of the changes required and their discussion in the Cabinet Committee on Security as well as in public to the extent possible in order to evolve an administrative, political and national consensus on the proposed changes.

The leadership and initiative for policy decisions to introduce the changes came from the prime minister of the day, who also articulated the need for and the importance of the proposed changes.

The latest changes proposed by Chidambaram were not preceded by a similar detailed examination. The role and views of the prime minister and other senior ministers in respect of the proposed changes remain obscure. These changes, if and when implemented, could lead to a strengthening of the role and the status of the home minister in respect of internal security management and a corresponding dilution of the role of the prime minister, his NSA, the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat. Is this desirable?

The three major changes proposed by the home minister relate to making the home ministry exclusively responsible for the professional management of internal security similar to the Department of Homeland Security in the US, the creation in the home ministry by 2010-end of a National Counter-Terrorism Centre similar to the NCTC of the US and the revamping of the immigration control apparatus whose inefficiency was exploited by David Coleman Headley alias Daood Gilani and Tahawwur Hussain Rana of the Chicago cell of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba for frequent clandestine visits to India to prepare the ground for the 26/11 terrorist strikes.

These changes have been advocated by many security experts of the country, including this writer, since 2004 when the US homeland security architecture was revamped in pursuance of the recommendations of the national commission which inquired into the failures that facilitated the 9/11 terrorist strikes and the discussions on its report in the US Congress.

These changes are welcome, but the ideas behind them are not new. What is new is the political will shown by Chidambaram to accept the desirability of these changes and the need to introduce them. Chidambaram needs to be complimented for this.

However, what should be of concern is the manner in which he proposes to introduce these changes. After reading the reports on his address as published in the media, one cannot but nurse an apprehension that the manner in which he intends to implement them could result in an over-centralised and over-powerful home ministry with the role of the minister in charge strengthened at the expense of the prime minister.

References have been made to the post-9/11 changes in the US, but attention has not been drawn to the fact that in introducing the changes in the US over-centralisation has been avoided. The NCTC in the US functions under the director, National Intelligence, who reports directly to the President and takes orders from him and not from the secretary for Homeland Security. The independence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as the leading investigation agency in terrorism-related cases has been maintained. The secretary for Homeland Security has no control over it.

The responsibilities of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency relating to counter-terrorism outside the homeland and covert operations against terrorists in foreign territory have been maintained. He reports to the director, National Intelligence, who, in turn, reports to the President and not to the secretary for Homeland Security. The National Security Agency and other technical intelligence agencies, in the exercise of their functions relating to counter terrorism, continue to report to the defence secretary and the director of National Intelligence and not to the secretary for Homeland Security.

While the secretary for homeland security is the overlord of physical security measures and follow-up action on intelligence reports, his powers have not been expanded at the expense of other agencies of the government, which play an important role in respect of counter-terrorism.

What Chidambaram seems to want is that all agencies of the government of India, except the SPG, which have counter-terrorism capabilities, should function directly under the home minister and take orders from him. Is this desirable? Will it improve counter-terrorism?

Another worrisome aspect of Chidambaram's address is that it makes no distinction between terrorism as a threat and terrorism as a phenomenon, between indigenous terrorism by our nationals and externally-sponsored terrorism by foreign nationals, between operational and political management of terrorism and between the use of hard and soft power in dealing with terrorism.

It tends to treat all terrorists as one and the same though he does talk of a nuanced approach.

While the changes proposed by Chidambaram in the internal security set-up should be welcomed, the questions as to how to implement them, how to avoid over-centralisation and how to ensure that while strengthening the counter-terrorism capabilities of the intelligence agencies, we do not weaken their capabilities relating to China and Pakistan should be examined by a group consisting of the finance, home, defence and external affairs ministers and its recommendations discussed in parliament.

B Raman