July 21, 2007

Indian Intelligence : Why top officials are upset with a new book

Codeword Omerta
The ex-RAW man's book has ruffled many plumes within the agency

Source: Outlook , India

Saikat Datta

India's premier foreign intelligence agency, RAW, does not take kindly to criticism. Which is why top officials are upset with a new book authored by an ex-officer. India's External Intelligence: Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing by Major General V.K. Singh (retd), who has served as a joint secretary in raw, is an insider's story on the inner workings of an agency which isn't even accountable to Parliament.

Ever since Outlook (July 2, '07) first highlighted the book's contents, a storm from within the top echelons of RAW has greeted Singh's effort. Senior officials have been debating the right course of action against the whistleblower. Finally, last week, secretary, RAW, Ashok Chaturvedi, shot off a letter to the cabinet secretary and also spoke to national security advisor M.K. Narayanan. The conversation had a single- point agenda. Chaturvedi wanted the book withdrawn and action taken against the author under the draconian Official Secrets Act (OSA), 1923. According to sources, the Special Protection Group (SPG), tasked with providing security cover to present and former prime ministers, is also upset with some of the book's revelations.

Some of Singh's disclosures include criticism of the communication system used by the SPG which, apparently, can be tampered with because its algorithm, designed by US firm Motorola, is not exclusive to India. The system was also not subjected to the mandatory "crack (hacker) resistivity" tests and was not certified by the Systems Analysis Group, as is mandated under due process.

Sources told Outlook that the present SPG chief, B.V. Wanchoo, is one of those who have expressed reservations about such details coming out in a book. While he hasn't suggested a ban, several senior officials who have served with RAW are in support of the book being banned. The fear is that if no action is taken now, it would embolden others to write similar accounts that could not only prove embarrassing to the organisation but also to individuals currently serving or previous incumbents.

A positive in all this, of course, is that the book has brought to the fore the faultlines within the organisation. Most of the second-rung officers, recruited directly under the Research and Analysis Service (RAS) cadre, have always resented the domination of the top by IPS cadre officers. Hence, it's no surprise that most of them have welcomed the book's publication in the hope that it exposes the "misdeeds" of the IPS lobby. In the book, Singh dwells at length on the flaws of the top leadership and the many critical failures flowing from it, the latest being the embarrassing defection to the US of a raw joint secretary, Rabinder Singh.

There have been other voices too who have come out in support of Gen V.K. Singh's book. Former BSF chief Prakash Singh feels that books which examine organisations critically do serve a purpose. "I see no objection. Institutional and systemic failures need to be addressed and must not be brushed under the carpet of secrecy. That itself breeds corruption and ensures that organisations like RAW don't effectively serve the role they were created for," he says.

Former joint director with the Intelligence Bureau, M.K. Dhar, faced a similar threat of a ban when his book, Open Secrets, was published two years ago. "Why shouldn't we have more accountability in the intelligence organisations?" he asks. "After all, they are supposed to be professional organisations and are important tools of a functioning democracy. A democracy without accountability is worse than a military dictatorship and I feel books like the one V.K.Singh has written must be published. Keep out the personal bitterness, but address the systemic changes that are required to better the organisation. Anyway, there is nothing secret in Singh's book." But senior RAW officials think otherwise. As they see it, any criticism of the agency amounts to compromising national security.

RAW, Analyse This
Gen Singh's book is a timely reminder that RAW's structural rot needs looking into

Lt General Tej Pathak

There appears to be a controversy brewing over V.K. Singh's book on India's external intelligence agency, RAW. What is being missed in the debate is not so much the issue of whether any sensitive or classified information has been revealed, for if that has been done, then the general must be hauled over the coals. But there is the larger issue here of accountability which cannot be ignored.

This is underscored by recent events wherein a definite bias against Indian intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies—in terms of investigative capabilities and ability to deal with increasingly sophisticated terrorist threats—appears to be emerging. Western intelligence and counter-terrorist agencies don't seem to be fully cooperating.

The prime minister's lament on the first anniversary of the Mumbai train blasts certainly alluded to this when he remarked "we will do whatever is possible to bring the guilty to book". Such a remark from the prime minister, coming after a full year's investigation, does seem to confirm that greater soul-searching by investigating and intelligence agencies is imperative.

Gen Singh's book needs to be seen from the prism of the larger question of accountability of our premier intelligence agencies rather than as an attempt to score brownie points. Singh raises the issue that India lacks a credible oversight mechanism for our intelligence agencies. There is no parliamentary scrutiny into their functioning, be it the quality of intelligence, organisational issues or procurement procedures. Consequently, our intelligence agencies have little accountability unlike in the US or UK.

No parliamentary committee (like the senate intelligence committee in the US) has dared to question the efficacy of our intelligence or ask why so many major terror attacks, be it the Mumbai train blasts or the Samjhauta Express blast, remain unsolved. Shouldn't we, in a parliamentary democracy like ours, ask whether it is by design that the political establishment has ensured that there is no oversight of these agencies. Unfortunately, public memory in India is short. Shortly after the Kargil war, a key area of reforms undertaken by the Group of Ministers was that of the intelligence structure. It was a bid to make it more dynamic and responsive.

If what is detailed in Singh's book is even partially true, then nothing much was done. It appears to be business as usual. It is in this construct that critical literature like Gen Singh's book is an important contribution and even a timely reminder that the structural rot obviously needs a thorough revamping to make it more professional.

Books of this nature help in highlighting existing institutional weaknesses. It is only through such revelations that adequate pressure can be built both through media and organisational analysis for much-needed systemic reforms.

(The author retired as commandant, National Defence College)

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