Thursday, February 10, 2005

INDIA: Intelligence needs a new order

+ Intelligence is neither art nor science nor black magic. In intelligence, two and two rarely make four. They may add up to five or twenty or even zero. A rare quality is needed to make the sum as close to four as possible, a quality born of experience, expertise and insight. If these misfire, intelligence can be blamed for the ensuing catastrophe. But such a catastrophe is almost like an act of God — unforeseen, unpreventable and without any warning by anyone else. +

Intelligence needs a new order
For India, the challenges go beyond terrorism and Islamic extremism

A.K. VERMA

Intelligence bashing has become a worldwide sport. For erring politicians and bureaucracies what could be a better scapegoat than one which is prevented from rising to its own defense by custom, tradition or law!

Recent inquiry reports into 9/11 and WMD in Iraq conform to this trend. Media reports following RAW’s Rabindra Singh episode fit the same pattern. How valid is the judgment on intelligence of someone unfamiliar with the intelligence process?

Intelligence is neither art nor science nor black magic. In intelligence, two and two rarely make four. They may add up to five or twenty or even zero. A rare quality is needed to make the sum as close to four as possible, a quality born of experience, expertise and insight. If these misfire, intelligence can be blamed for the ensuing catastrophe. But such a catastrophe is almost like an act of God — unforeseen, unpreventable and without any warning by anyone else.

A phenomenon called ‘‘unknowability’’ is forever present in the world of intelligence. This ensures that no intelligence organisation can become Mr. Knowall. The best it can do is to narrow down the circle of unknowability. What lies within this circle will still remain unknowable. Critics’ barbs are based on the presumption that everything is knowable.

Allegations against the CIA in the recent Senate inquiry report, for instance, arise from the unknowability of WMD in Iraq. The report offers no clue as to how the unknowable could have been made realistically knowable.

For India, the challenges of tomorrow go beyond terrorism and Islamic extremism. As a young nation awakening to its international persona, India’s national security interests will cover a very wide spectrum. A completely de novo look at existing intelligence mechanisms is necessary to ascertain whether they measure up to the tasks ahead.

To be sure, the performance of Indian intelligence in the past 57 years is studded with extraordinarily bright patches. Some credible knowledge about this already exists in the public domain. It is less well known that the foundations for the current warm spells in Indo-US and Sino-Indian relations were laid through intelligence exercises in 1982 and 1988 respectively. A similar effort with Pakistan had created great hopes but it fell through when its military leadership, which had given the green signal, sensed a threat from the outcome to its supremacy in Pakistani politics.

These achievements came about despite the myriad infirmities in infrastructure, methods of recruitment, structure of remuneration and incentives. These matters were never earlier looked into except when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. He had the sensitivity to understand that they arose from the moth-eaten legacy of the colonial approach.

He oversaw the initiation of an exercise to fashion a new order. Representatives of the cabinet secretariat, departments of personnel, expenditure, finance, and others participated in the deliberations. An agreement was hammered out. The top-secret file progressed through these departme- nts/ministries. But while on the last leg of its journey to the PMO in late 1989, it suddenly disappeared. It has not surfaced since.

The disappearing act was the result of the reservations of some key participants towards the reforms that would have altered the existing balance in the civil services and created a new entity. In reality, the colonial mindset was the culprit. Advantage was taken of the nearness of general elections to perpetrate the mischief.

India’s intelligence will not shine unless the exercise is recommenced by reviving the contents of the missing file. A beginning towards the required reform could be made by addressing the issue of legal status. At present, no law governs intelligence — national or international. The Indian intelligence operative in a foreign country must transgress local laws to execute his brief but has no legal backing to engage in such activities. Nor is there a law to authorise the government to order such action. A democracy must fortify itself by local legislation as some countries have done.

Intelligence should be an autonomous entity, making its own rules and regulations, recruitments, setting conditions of service, rewards, punishments, with suitable audits and safeguards against misuse. It should be independent of bureaucracies, taking its orders from the top political authority. The laws that create it should define how this system would work.

A written charter is a sine qua non for a good intelligence environment. It reduces poaching, turf battles, political interference, vague objectives. Only the brightest should be permitted entry and the organisation should have the freedom to offer the best terms and incentives to attract them.

The present Union government places a high value on the ideals of Rajiv Gandhi. It should consider resurrecting a project that was close to his heart. A superior performance by intelligence will be the dividend. But strong vested interests will want the debilitating culture of the status quo to continue. The loser will then be, not intelligence, but the country.

The writer is former secretary, RAW