Blundering Secret Agencies
The absolute opacity around India’s secret service and intelligence agencies has allowed for serious security lapses and a sinister misuse of power, sometimes at the cost of national security
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
“It is hilarious how the media and the national security experts are going into a tizzy about an Islamic State (IS) flag hoisted by a boy in Srinagar,” a former top police official told Hardnews. “Who knows who is behind this stunt?” he said, adding the assertion that Muslims are getting radicalised has fallen flat for want of facts and statistics.
“They keep busting sleeper cells and modules in all parts of the country. They never keep the local police in the loop. Why is it so, I wonder? Wouldn’t it be better if they informed the local police to ensure that the criminals are arrested well in time? Or is it just that some of these modules are being set up by the agencies themselves?” he said. “There is a dire need to involve the local police in intelligence gathering operations,” a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat points out.
“The intelligence setup is so opaque that it is impossible to get to the truth of the matter,” the former cop points out.
“Sometimes, even the Home Secretary and even the Home Minister don’t have a clue as to what the intelligence agencies are up to. They are the ones who are supposed to keep the political executive in the know of what is happening and they share only what they want,” says Dhirendra Singh, former Home Secretary. The entire political set-up of the country was caught completely off-guard when it was found that the Technical Support Division, a secret unit formed by the then Army Chief, General VK Singh, was snooping on politicians and also allegedly paid off a legislator to topple the Omar Abdullah-led government in Jammu & Kashmir.
Meanwhile, to give credence to his assertion, the cop narrates the Ishrat Jahan encounter case where one Javed Sheikh was killed along with Jahan and two others in a fake encounter on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in June 2004. “Sheikh was working for the State Intelligence Bureau,” he says. “It is bizarre how they killed their own source.” The case, which was investigated by the CBI under the supervision of the High Court, found that top police officials and the local unit of the Intelligence Bureau colluded in the heinous crime. The CBI filed a chargesheet against top police officials and Rajendra Kumar, the then head of SIB Ahmedabad, who was found to be in touch with Sheikh while he was on his way to Ahmedabad from Mumbra, purportedly on the instructions of Kumar himself. It was also alleged that Kumar had arranged the weapons that were planted on Jahan and others.
Despite figuring in the chargesheet as one of the prime accused, the CBI failed to arrest Kumar, owing to tremendous pressure from the agencies. Their attempt to even bring the IB under the arc of their investigation was strongly opposed by the agency. Asif Ibraheem, the IB chief, in a rare confrontation with the apex investigating agency, called it an attack on the IB that would threaten national security and dissuaded the intelligence agency officials from sharing inputs. The Home Ministry also developed cold feet when their sanction was sought to prosecute Kumar.
Meanwhile, this is not the only case. In February 2006, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police, which works closely with the IB, claimed to have arrested two Al-Badr militants, namely, Maurif Qamar and Irshad Ali, from Mukarba Chowk in Delhi. The two were ‘apprehended’ with a huge cache of RDX. “In our investigations we found out that both the persons were actually working for the IB in Kashmir,” says a CBI officer who investigated the case after Delhi High Court handed over the probe to the investigating agency. The CBI recommended action against three sub-inspectors of the Special Cell and said that the duo was kept in illegal detention for more than two months and falsely implicated as terrorists. Qamar and Ali were later acquitted by the court.
There are more such cases. Like that of Tariq Dar, the Kashmiri model who was first tortured by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in Dhaka on charges of being an Indian spy. Dar, after he was released due to relentless campaigning by the Indian foreign ministry and the human rights organisations, was curiously again picked up by the Indian agencies as soon as he landed in Delhi. Tortured and jailed for almost three months, he was released after the public prosecutor filed a discharge petition. The special cell officers claimed that they couldn’t gather enough evidence as the case pertained to a foreign country.
Despite clear involvement in such crimes, no harm came IB’s way. The fact that the IB chief himself ran from pillar to post in the case of Rajinder Kumar leads one to believe that instead of getting a rap on their knuckles, the erring officers were mostly protected. Some were even allowed the escape route. Like the infamous Rabinder Kumar whose crime was of a more serious nature, at least for the intelligence community that seems to have little regard for the human rights of ordinary citizenry. Kumar, a senior official with the R&AW, was found to be a CIA mole in 2004. He was passing along crucial information to the CIA handlers in Delhi. After a whistleblower junior official informed the then R&AW chief of Singh’s shady dealings, the R&AW chief did mount some level of surveillance. However, Singh still managed to escape to the US with help from the CIA operatives in Delhi and Kathmandu.
Interestingly, in a fictional account of the happenings, Amar Bhushan, the former head of counter-intelligence operations with R&AW and the man widely believed to be behind the serious lapse – also someone who wanted to set the record straight — writes that of the 57 officials who would share information with Ravi (the protagonist) 26 were never asked for an explanation while 31 others were posted abroad.
The intelligence set-up was penetrated again in 2006, when Delhi Police arrested SS Paul on charges of espionage. A computer operator in the National Security Council Secretariat, Paul was passing on sensitive information to Rossana Minchew, a CIA operative working undercover in the US Embassy in Delhi. In the 1990s too, a senior official of IB was found to be in a clandestine relationship with a woman CIA operative.
“This is not the only issue. Look at how there is no concrete welfare and compensation policy for the agents who are sent abroad, especially to Pakistan, and are either caught or get killed,” says the former Special Secretary. “Sarabjit Singh was just one such case. There are so many other cases in Punjab and Haryana where people chose to go to the court for more compensation.”
“There is a pressing need for reforms and accountability,” says a former Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat. “We also need proper co-ordination among the agencies,” he adds, referring to the serious lapse in coordination which led to the Mumbai attack.
During our enquiries we were told that the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) and its state-level compartments — State Multi-Agency Centres (SMACs) — were doing only the collation work by pooling available intelligence with the members. There was no ‘intelligence arbitration’ with different agencies to analyse intelligence and arrive at a common threat perception,” the authors of A Case for Intelligence Reforms in India say in their report.
Another big failure happened in 1999 when R&AW and other agencies’ inadequacies in intelligence gathering led to the intrusion by Pakistani armed forces in Kargil. “We need a proper direct recruitment policy so that we have the best possible talent,” the official says. Moreover, the fact that there are very few Muslims in IB and absolutely none in R&AW has come under severe criticism for lack of proper explanation. “They may be certainly very useful in places like Pakistan, which share a common culture,” the official points out.
“There is a lot of arbitrariness when it comes to postings. In the last two-three decades, for example, most of the people sent to Pakistan did not belong to the Indian Police Services but came from other backgrounds. Why is it that the IPS officials serving in R&AW don’t want to take difficult postings?” he asks.
“There is no transparency or accountability,” the former official says. “While secret service funds are used in the name of cultivating assets, there is no mechanism to find out if those assets still need to be nurtured or if the money is actually going to them. There have been instances where the secret service fund has been used to buy personal cars.”
“There have been other cases where the senior officers have given out their personal houses to the agency to be used as a safe house and are drawing regular rent at the market rates, even when these safe houses are barely used for the assets. It is mostly the friends and family of officials who are using it,” he says. “Most intelligence agencies rent rooms in hotels. Why do you even need a safe house? There is a need to audit the secret service funds,” the former official points out.
“Why are they scared of a parliamentary oversight?” the official asks. “All operational details need not be given out but some of it can definitely be shared with the elected representatives,” he says. “But I am not very sure if this government will do anything. Ajit Doval, the new NSA, is one of those who always favoured a free run for the agencies.”
Reforms that the country’s secret services urgently require:
- Introduce legislation in Parliament for laying down the charters, functions and duties of intelligence organizations.
- Provide a legal basis for different tiers of accountability – executive, financial and legislative.
- Have open and separate direct recruitment mechanisms for different intelligence agencies - advertising for the best talent available, specifying the qualifications required, including linguistic abilities – by using the existing mechanism of the Union Public Service Commission.
- Improve quality of supervision in operational branches of intelligence agencies, reverse drift in operational work, discard useless and profligate sources.
- Bring better financial probity in intelligence operations.
- Introduce concept of social welfare safeguards for assets who rendered valuable service for national security, but became casualties on the job.
- Strengthen financial accountability of intelligence agencies; annual reports to go to Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG)/NSA.
- Provide for an in camera audit of Secret Service Funds.
- Have a separate intelligence ombudsman for IB, R&AW & NTRO.
- Examine the option of having a Minister for National Security & Intelligence, who could exercise administrative authority on all intelligence agencies.
- Set up a Parliamentary Accountability Committee for oversight of intelligence agencies through legislation.
Recommendations by the authors of A Case for Intelligence Reforms in India, brought out by the IDSA.