(Written for the “Times of India” at their request. A slightly edited version of this has been carried by them at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Home/Sunday-TOI/Special-Report/It-is-unintelligent-to-have-no-humint-or-hi-tech/articleshow/6096416.cms )
Indian intelligence agencies are good in crisis management after a threat to national security has materialized, but inadequate in preventing a crisis.
Their often-demonstrated failure to prevent a national security crisis can be attributed to a lack of quality control in their internal management. This poor quality control is evident in their outdated recruitment procedures, which tend to presume mistakenly that police officers naturally make good intelligence officers and their poor man management which often leads to internal frictions.
Poor team work which affects their ability to co-ordinate and the tendency to treat the intelligence profession like any other government job where seniority prevails over merit are also an outcome of this. So too is their failure to keep pace with developments in science and technology which are adding to the threats and the over-focus on short-term tactics and the under-focus on a long-term strategy to foresee, forestall and control a national security crisis.
Unlike other countries, techniques of national security and intelligence management have not received in India the attention they deserve either in the agencies themselves, or at the senior levels of the general bureaucracy or in the political leadership. The result: The agencies tend to drift from crisis to crisis, from failure to failure and from surprise to surprise. The poor techniques are reflected in the low standards of our intelligence training schools and in the poor quality of research on national security and intelligence management in our think-tanks and academic institutions.
National security and intelligence management is not treated as a science to be constantly developed, but as an esoteric subject beyond the understanding of the generalists and hence better left to the intelligence careerists.
Intelligence careerism stands in the way of our agencies coming up to national requirements and expectations. It also thwarts professionalism. We have many intelligence careerists, but not that many intelligence professionals. One finds professionals in increasing numbers in foreign agencies, but not in India.
Our political class, which sees intelligence as an exploitable instrument of political survival and not as an indispensable instrument of national survival, has also contributed to this state of affairs.
Our agencies are not without good points. Our intelligence officers may be poor collectors of preventive intelligence, but make good analysts of the limited intelligence they collect. Foreign intelligence officers are good collectors, but poor analysts.
The John Major Commission of Canada, which enquired into the blowing-up of the Kanishka aircraft of Air India by the Babbar Khalsa in 1985, has highlighted how the Canadian officers failed to analyse adequately the flood of intelligence reports available.
Crisis management comes to us instinctively. Despite being taken by surprise initially, we manage to prevail at the end. We saw this during the Indo-Pak war of 1965 and the Kargil conflict of 1999, and in the way we prevailed over the Mizo National Front, the Khalistani terrorists in Punjab and Al Ummah in Tamil Nadu. Even in Kashmir, though taken by surprise in 1989, we have retrieved lost ground after what appeared to be a hopeless situation in the 1990s.
Despite these good points, our agencies have failed to come up to expectations because there has been no continuous, independent and transparent evaluation of their performance. Our agencies continue to be evaluators of their own performance whereas in foreign countries, particularly in the West, their performance is regularly subject to external evaluation by the parliament as well as other bodies of experts not necessarily from the profession.
Detailed enquiries like those into the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, the London blasts of July 2005 in the UK and the recent Kanishka enquiry in Canada are more an exception than the rule in India. Our Parliament does not even know how much it is voting for the intelligence budgets and how that money is being spent. The intelligence allocations are concealed in the general budgets of other Ministries and Departments and are voted without independent scrutiny.
Intelligence agencies and chiefs can do no wrong. They are manned by honourable men who will not transgress laws and rules of propriety. So it used to be assumed before the Second World War, but no longer so. The post-Watergate enquiries in the US brought out that there are as many incompetents, opportunists and even law-breakers in the intelligence profession as in any other public service. The result: The opening-up of intelligence agencies to the extent possible due to security considerations to external evaluation. India is one of the very few democratic countries where the agencies continue to be closed houses not open to an external performance audit. Unless this changes, our intelligence management will not change for the better.
Past threats came more from state than non-state actors. Post-Second World War threats come as much from non-state as state actors. Before the World War, the intelligence profession was admired. It was seen as a profession of anonymous patriots of the highest order. The public considered it their duty and privilege to co-operate with them.
The intelligence profession is now tolerated as necessary, but it is no longer admired because of its seeming helplessness against the plethora of non-state actors. Public co-operation has consequently decreased. This has had a negative impact on the flow of human intelligence. Our ability to collect intelligence through gadgets has been improving, but not our ability to use human resources for intelligence collection.
How to deal with the new situation we are facing, which is marked more by threats to internal than external security? This is a question which needs attention. (25-6-10)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )