India’s intelligence woes

I had mentioned in my last post that the government has to answer why the Mumbai attack inquiry report (Pradhan Committee) has not been tabled in the Maharashtra Assembly till now. And why has it been designated as classified? Was happy to read that Home Minister P Chidambaram announced on November 26 that the report will be made available to the public.

Despite this, the challenges faced by the Indian intelligence set-up are huge. Reports have suggested that the Home Minister has undertaken a thorough review of the intelligence operations and is working towards increasing the efficiency of the agencies like RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

Newspaper reports have suggested that the Central Government is considering a proposal to establish a National Intelligence and Security Authority. Creating a post of Director of National Intelligence (on the lines of the US), who would head the entire intelligence community in the country, is also under consideration. The proposed agency would integrate all external, internal, and military intelligence inputs in order to make informed decisions.

While all this is under consideration, the Home Minister also has to address the serious issues that India’s external intelligence agency (RAW) is facing. One of the major issue that the agency had faced in recent times was the episode of Rabinder Singh’s disappearance. Singh, a Joint Secretary level officer of RAW, was under surveillance when he disappeared and defected to the US.

Details that emerged after his disappearance clearly suggested that he was working for US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was passing valuable information to them. Normally in such cases, a detailed investigation is carried out to determine the level of damage the mole might have done to the agency. Such an investigation was carried out by RAW and some of the details that emerged from it were quite shocking. An article written by a very well known and respected journalist, Rambahadur Rai, in a hindi magazine Pratham Pravakta recounts the chilling details of Singh’s escape and whether there was an attempt on the part of the senior officers of the agency to let him escape.

Some of the important points highlighted in the article are:

1. RAW’s internal inquiry into Singh’s disappearance found that as many as 55 officers had provided information to Rabinder Singh.

2. Rabinder Singh was allowed to flee because had he been caught, it would have brought the role of many senior officers under scrutiny.

3. Singh, along with hiw wife, fled to Nepalgunj in May 2004 where he was received by a US embassy official (First Secretary David Wasla) . They went to Kathmandu and Singh and his wife were given new passports in the name of Rajpal Prasad Sharma and Deepa Kumar Sharma. Both of them boarded an Austrian Airlines flight (No 05032 – via Vienna) on May 7 from the Tribhuvan Airport and reached the US.

4. The article also details how Singh was recruited by the CIA.

5. Questions have also been raised on the capability of RAW as an agency as they were clueless for a long time about his activities. The extent to which he has compromised the agency’s and the country’s secrets is still not clearly known.

Almost all the intelligence agencies of the world face the challenge of protecting their organisation from penetration by other agencies. Almost most of the leading agencies (MI6, CIA) have been penetrated by their rivals in the past. Britain’s MI6 had Burgess, Philby, Blunt and McLean, while the CIA had Aldrich Ames. All these were double agents who worked for Russia’s (formerly Soviet Union) KGB. But these agencies did not sweep the issue under the carpet and conducted extensive inquiries both within and outside the agency and took necessary measures.

Agencies like MI6 and CIA are subject to parliamentary and US Congress oversight. Apart from being answerable to the National Security Council – that includes the President, Vice President, the Secretaries of State and Defense – the activities of the CIA are also monitored by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

MI6 is also subject to parliamentary, ministerial, judicial and financial oversight. This oversight is based on two key pieces of UK legislation, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 (ISA) and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

But there is no such mechanism in India. The findings of the internal inquiry of RAW into the Rabinder Singh episode will never be known even to the Indian Parliament or a parliamentary committee. How then can we be sure of their effectiveness in gathering information and protecting the country.

The Home Minister has to ensure that an oversight mechanism be created to ensure that such vital issues (Rabinder Singh episode) affecting national security are not swept under the carpet and appropriate lessons are drawn from it.

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