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Intelligence and accountability

Mr.Joginder Singh

A retired middle-level officer in the country's intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, has published a book quite critical of the R&AW's functioning. On receipt of a complaint from the Government, the CBI registered a case against him under the Official Secrets Act. There is no power vested in the CBI to decline any Government request to conduct investigation into any alleged violation of law.

As part of the investigation, raids were conducted at his residence as well as the premises of the publisher. Incidentally, such raids are part of investigation to recover any possible incriminating evidence; else, no accused will confess his or her role. The CBI has been severely criticised for conducting raids at his residence. However, a conveniently forgotten point is that no complaint under the Official Secrets Act can be taken up by the premier investigating agency, unless the affected party -- this time it's the Government -- lodges it.

As long as the 1923 Official Secrets Act is on the statutes, some agency has to act on the receipt of the complaint. The CBI did exactly that. Whether the law is relevant or not, in the light of the Right to Information Act, is a different issue.

In a democracy, no institution should be left without a mechanism of checks and balances. It should regularly be scrutinised to see that it is faithfully pursuing its assigned function. There is some sort of accountability on all Government departments, either departmentally or through CAG or CVC. Ironically, even 60 years after independence, India's intelligence set-up has not been subjected to scrutiny, except by the departmental bosses. This is contrary to the basic norms of democracy.

Intelligence agencies across the world are obsessed with secrecy. It is for this reason that their retired officials are discouraged not only from writing their memoirs, but also speaking in public. In 1977, the British Government deported Philip Agee, an American writer, who had a profound knowledge of the CIA. In 1985, the British Government went to extent of preventing the publication of Spycatcher by a former MI5 operative. I have gone through the book and found it dull and boring. But thanks to the British Government, it became a bestseller.

As for the book of the R&AW officer, it has been in the market for the past five months and has sold over 3,000 copies. Except for talking about the equipment, which India has -- or might be contemplating to have -- there is hardly anything secret in the book. The writer was a middle-level officer in the R&AW. He may not have all the knowledge about the agency, as all intelligence agencies function on the 'need-to-know' basis.

He talks about the lack of leadership and accountability in the agency and its misuse of funds, as well as some cases of doubtful procurement. The trouble with such books is that they contain a few facts and a lot of gossips. The book also claimed that there were severe lapses by the Government that facilitated the escape of R&AW Joint-Secretary Rabinder Singh, who is believed to have fled to the US in 2004.

He talks about the agency's decision to release the transcript between Gen Pervez Musharraf and Mohammed Aziz at the height of the Kargil war. He says that it was a mistake from the intelligence point of view. He added that releasing the transcript might have served a diplomatic purpose, but it helped Pakistan discover that the Islamabad-Beijing satellite link was being tapped and that source was shut forever. But the truth is that such decisions are taken at the Government level and not the agency's level. It only highlights the writer's lack of knowledge of the working of the Government. However, the book should prod the Government to have a mechanism whereby the so-called sacred cows -- our intelligence agencies -- are subjected to scrutiny and accountability, as is the case in the US.

The CIA is accountable to the US legislature's Intelligence Oversight Committees; also, it cannot keep its secret files in secrecy forever. CIA files are regularly declassified after 40 years. Unfortunately, there are no such provisions in India. Worse, in R&AW, the recruitment to the senior ranks was limited to the children of the officials working therein. No open system of recruitment was adopted. Right or wrong, it created an impression that favouritism and nepotism work in the country's intelligence agencies.

India's security interests primarily lie in its neighbourhood. According to one report, there are more R&AW operatives posted in Europe and North America than Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Thailand. The report also says that the R&AW does not have even one Darhi-speaking operative in Afghanistan.

Instead of invoking the Official Secrets Act, it is time an honest appraisal of the country's intelligence agencies was made in the national interest. Indeed, if someone acts as a whistle-blower and exposes corruption, he should not be seen as violating the Official Secrets Act. The RTI Act clearly affirms that it overrides the OSA; the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, too, wants it to be scrapped. Vital secrets of the country must be guarded. But at the same time, the right of the citizens to get information regarding governance must not be diluted.

It will be in the interest of the nation if, after 20 to 30 years, all papers -- except those relating to the operational intelligence -- are thrown open for public scrutiny.

A few years ago, it was reported that the Communist countries did not plant any spies in democratic countries, as the newspapers used to reveal their bases and activities. When questioned, a colleague confirmed that the agencies pick most of the intelligence from information published in the newspapers.

As for the book, the very fact that an intelligence officer has written it gives it some value. Still, it is advisable that the members of the secret services do not talk or write about operational matters, as they may reveal some information which may harm the nation. Those in the intelligence agencies must understand that they are in secret services and certain obligations will always remain with their work.


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