Even as MHA promises to set up new, Rs. 3,400-crore spy centre, intelligence services say little effort has been made to enhance existing capacities

Even as the Ministry of Home Affairs has renewed efforts to set up a new Rs. 3,400-crore National Counter-Terrorism Centre, highly placed government sources told The Hindu that little effort had been made to address crippling shortages of capacity in the domestic intelligence service, the Intelligence Bureau, or in State police intelligence services.

The Ministry’s renewed push to set up a NCTC, driven by last week’s terror attacks in Hyderabad, is being criticised within the Intelligence Bureau as a wasteful effort.

“It’s plain silly,” a senior Intelligence Bureau officer said. “Instead of fixing the problems of the institutions we have, we’re committing to spend a fortune on creating yet another bureaucracy.”

Five years after the 26/11 attacks, the headquarters of the IB’s operations directorate in New Delhi — the cutting edge of the organisation’s counter-jihadist operations — makes do with just 30-odd analysts and field personnel, a tenth or less of the numbers employed at similar organisations across the world. Personnel shortages have also meant that small groups of counter-terrorism specialists set up at the IB’s State offices have often been committed to other forms of intelligence work.

In 2009, then Home Minister P. Chidambaram authorised the Intelligence Bureau to hire 6,000 new personnel, part-meeting long-standing human resource deficits in the organisation. The IB’s training facility, however, trains an estimated 600 staff each year. This barely covers the numbers of personnel who retire each year from the estimated 28,000-strong organisation.

A senior intelligence official said: “In all, I would estimate that our manpower has grown by just about 5% since 2009.”

Electronic intelligence gathering capacities, which have received massive investments since 26/11, are also less than optimal. The super-secret National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), intended to meet the technological needs of the intelligence services, has become a communications-intelligence empire in its own right. In addition, the NTRO has been beset by successive financial scandals “The IB desperately needs better technology for Internet monitoring,” an officer said. “The NTRO has it, but doesn’t use it in the ways operators on the ground need.”

Last year, the IB launched a large-scale effort to recruit personnel from the regions most affected by political violence and terrorism. New its chief, Asif Ibrahim, sources said, would be placing emphasis on improving human intelligence skills — in essence, focussing on penetrating terrorist groups rather than relying on technology alone.

Part of the problem, some IB officials also concede is the organisation’s staggering mandate — spanning intelligence-gathering on everything from the state of play in elections, industrial relations and even food security. Five of the 28 Joint Directors in New Delhi deal directly with counter-terrorism issues.

Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s decision to push forward with setting up the NCTC — resisted by several States, which believe it will encroach on their powers — has come amid media claims that better sharing of intelligence might have prevented last week’s attacks. In fact, police sources in Hyderabad argue that the real problem is a famine of actionable intelligence — the consequence of deficits in intelligence-gathering capacities — not the sharing of information on prospective threats.

None of the three warnings issued to State police forces ahead of last week’s bombing, highly placed government sources said, however contained information that might have enabled the attack to be pre-empted.

The first warning, on February 16, raised the prospect of terror strikes as retaliation against the hanging of Parliament attacker Afzal Guru. The second, issued on February 18, noted that terrorists were likely to hit areas where reconnaissance or strikes had earlier taken place. The third, issued on February 19, meticulously listed targets where arrested terrorist had conducted reconnaissance in preparation for attacks — but had no information on possible perpetrators.

Police sources in Andhra Pradesh dispute the utility of this information. The State police’s own intelligence services, they noted, had listed six potential targets in a warning issued on November 15, 2012, soon after the interrogation of Nanded residents Sayyed Maqbool and Imran Khan.

The two men, charged with terrorism-related crimes earlier this week, were reported to have told interrogators they scouted potential locations for a bombing in Hyderabad’s Dilsukhnagar, Begum Bazar and Abids in July 2012, on instructions from fugitive jihadist commander Riyaz Shahbandri.

“We knew this — but the fact is it’s next to useless to know this,” a police officer connected with the investigation told The Hindu. “We couldn’t just have kept hundreds of constables hanging around the streets indefinitely after that, looking for potential bombers. Firstly, we don’t have those kinds of resources, and secondly, the terrorists could just find another target.”

“Let me tell you a story about these intelligence alerts,” another senior Andhra Pradesh police officer said. “In August, 2005, a Member of the Legislative Assembly was assassinated by a Maoist death squad. Now, on that occasion, there was hard intelligence that an assassination was planned, but we didn’t have the resources to enhance protection for every vulnerable person. Now, though, every August 15, I get a warning that legislators may be assassinated.”

Experts have, for the most part, reacted to Mr. Shinde’s NCTC push with scepticism, noting it will only be useful if accompanied by system-wide investments in intelligence-gathering capacities, as well as a clear mandate. “We have eviscerated our intelligence and police institutions over the decades,” said Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi, “and now want to create layer upon layer of meta-institutions to ‘monitor’, ‘coordinate’ and ‘oversee’ this largely dysfunctional apparatus. It makes no sense at all.”

In a speech delivered at the end of 2009, Mr. Chidambaram had promised to set up the NCTC “by the end of 2010”— a third of the time it had taken the United States to create a similar institution. He argued: “India cannot afford to wait 36 months.”

Mr. Chidambaram’s NCTC would have provided real-time intelligence sharing using multiple databases, including those maintained by the National Intelligence Grid, NATGRID, the Crimes and Criminal Tracking Network and System, CCTNS, and the Intelligence Bureau-run intelligence sharing hub, the Multi-Agency Centre, MAC.

Few elements of this architecture, though, have actually been set up. NATGRID, according to a source close to the project, remained “several months to several years” away from being able to provide fluid real-time access to existing government databases, a tool to take on suspicious financial transactions.

Mr. Shinde inaugurated the central architecture of the CCTNS in January, but police sources say the national rollout of the system is years away.

The most likely form the NCTC will take, MHA sources said, will be in essence to strip away the existing MAC from the Intelligence Bureau. MAC currently holds two meetings between all intelligence-gathering services each day, and passes on information on threats nationwide. It also sucks up intelligence from State police forces, through regional hubs.

“I’m not sure what purpose having an NCTC which is essentially MAC would serve,” an intelligence officer said, “but I guess it will look like the government is doing something.”