November 10, 2011

National security and intelligence reforms

By: Vikram Sood Date: 2011-11-10 Place: Mumbai

India's external intelligence service the Research and Analysis Wing was formed in 1968, and 43 years later, we are still trying to determine what sort of an organisation would best serve the national purpose. This is a sad reflection on our strategic mindset because although periodic reforms are necessary, we in India are still debating how the organisation should be manned.

Some of the questions we should be asking are: What are the security threats that India would face in 2025 or 2030? What kind of an intelligence organisation would thus be needed either to protect our interests, prevent others from upstaging us or, if required, reversing the trend among our rivals. Does the present organisation have the ingredients to deliver? If not, what needs to be done so that we are not found wanting in 2025? In doing so, we have to evolve our own systems and not just copy other systems.

In bits and spurts: In India, intelligence reforms have been episodic,
usually following debacles, and not based on periodic threat assessments

Intelligence agencies can prevent wars but cannot by themselves win the wars. This has to be done by the armed forces, or if the threat is economic or technological (cyber, for instance) other experts are required. In India, reforms have been episodic, usually following a debacle and not based on periodic threat assessments. In house reviews have been about cadre reviews and career prospects fixing deputation quotas. Reform has to be more fundamental and far deeper. It must be borne in mind that intelligence agencies and reforms have to be done in the fullness of time and not when a crisis has begun to loom.

National threats have changed. There are other transnational threats that no single agency or a single country can handle. Besides, there is no knowing how the new threats will evolve. The rapidly changing technological applications bring their own threats. Catastrophic terrorism, cyber terrorism, remote control missile attacks and virtual wars are the other new threats. International trade and commercial transactions have become faster and more intricate; banking transactions move at the speed of lightning.

IT-driven globalisation also covers the criminal world. Interaction between narcotics smugglers, arms merchants, human traffickers and terrorists is that much easier, faster and safer. They all have access to sophisticated denial and deception techniques.

Add to this, radical religious terrorists who are affecting India most dramatically and are supported by Pakistan in every way. Intelligence organisations need language skills, interrogation skills, ability to deal with hostages, area and issue expertise, apart from operational skills of a special kind. The normal civil servant, however bright, just does not have these skills or the aptitude. There is no option for the intelligence organisations in India, but to follow the pattern elsewhere --recruit from the open market through advertisements.

The ideal of an intelligence organisation is that it has to be unique and is not like any other organisation, department or a ministry. It cannot exist without its mystic; a life of mirrors and masks. It is therefore a system with a mission which then becomes a crusade -- be it downsizing Pakistan, matching up to China or piggy backing on friendly powers.

As the CIA used to say, "the secret of our success is the secret of our success"; there are no heroes and the medals are secret. What is the price the government is willing to pay a band of men and women who sacrifice their individuality for anonymity and go against the grain of human nature, is a question that needs to be asked and replied all the time.

As with all institutions, intelligence organisations also occasionally face a decline -- for a number of reasons, -- bad internal leadership or disinterest by the political leadership. Robert Gates, who later headed the CIA, describes this well in a long memo he wrote to the then chief, Bill Casey in1981.

He said that the CIA was "a case of advanced bureaucratic arteriosclerosis: the arteries are clogging up with careerist bureaucrats who have lost the spark." Any intelligence organisation that is manned by careerists, who are either too old to be moulded or are risk averse, is on a sharp downhill slope. Any government of the day must guard against this because faulty or inaccurate intelligence is far more dangerous than no intelligence.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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