As CBI-IB spat is likely to turn nasty, government should think of means to make spy agencies accountable

With Intelligence Bureau Director Asif Ibrahim formally lodging his protest with the Union government against what he alleged the CBI’s “witch-hunt” of his officials in the Ishrat Jahan case, the war between the country’s internal spy agency and the premier investigation agency has come out in the open, threatening to take an unsavoury turn in the days to come.

The rivalry between the IB and the CBI can be traced to the ISRO spy scandal of 1996. The IB alleged that a spy ring operated in the space agency and accused two of its prominent scientists of leaking plans in exchange for money and allurements from two Maldivian women.

The scandal broke in October 1994 in Kerala with the arrest of Rasheeda, a Maldivian woman Rasheeda who had overstayed in India without a valid visa.

Later, a CBI probe not only recommended discharge of all the accused but also threw light on the unprofessional and shoddy manner in which investigations were carried out by the IB. The CBI filed its closure report on April 30, 1996, indicting then IB Director and nine other senior officials for mishandling the probe and sending unverified reports to the Prime Minister and the Home Minister.

The ISRO spy scandal and the Ishrat Jahan case have again turned the focus on the issue of transparency and accountability among the intelligence agencies. Serving and retired bureaucrats as well as those from the political class have raised key questions about the IB’s style of functioning and the conduct of some of its senior officials.

It was Vice-President Hamid Ansari who, three years ago, flagged the issue of accountability among the intelligence agencies. Delivering the R.N. Kao memorial lecture at the Research and Analysis Wing headquarters here in January 2010, he favoured a system of oversight. While both accountability and oversight were anathema to intelligence communities, these needed to be introduced in the Indian structure, he said.

Quoting an intelligence expert, Mr. Ansari said: “How shall a democracy ensure its secret intelligence apparatus becomes neither a vehicle for conspiracy nor a suppressor of the traditional liberties of democratic self-government?”

He said the current scheme in which intelligence agencies were kept out of parliamentary scrutiny was no longer tenable and did not meet the requirements of good governance in an open society.

Intelligence agencies have historically turned down suggestions that they submit themselves to parliamentary scrutiny for a variety of reasons, including fear of political interference and loss of secrecy in their operations.

Mr. Ansari told the intelligence brass that the arrangement in which intelligence agencies were accountable only to the executive raised concerns at the nature and scope of such supervision as well as the potential for misuse. He said other democracies, including the U.S., which also wrestled with the dilemma, had opted for oversight. He also favoured the establishment of a standing committee of Parliament on intelligence. Agreeing that operational secrecy had to be maintained, he, however, said the legislature which allocated funds for these agencies was entitled to insist on financial and performance accountability.

Mr. Ansari’s suggestion for legislative oversight of the intelligence agencies found support from most political parties, though some felt that the idea needed further discussions. At that time, Congress spokesman Manish Tewari, who is now Information and Broadcasting Minister, said the Vice-President had raised a very pertinent issue of governance. Incidentally, Mr. Tewari himself introduced a private member bill (The Intelligence Services-Powers & Regulation Bill, 2011) in Parliament in April 2011. His attempt was to codify oversight of major intelligence agencies.

BJP vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi felt that the issue should be discussed in Parliament. CPI(M) leader Basudeb Acharia said his party agreed with Mr. Ansari’s suggestion.

The former Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, V. Balachandran, in his recent column in The Sunday Guardian, said that not everything about the agencies could be revealed, especially the identities, the methods of operations, funding and individual objectives, as these were closely linked to the national security. “However, within these constraints, three aspects of oversight can be visualised: First, whether agencies are secretly trampling upon the civil liberties of Indian citizens on political considerations. Second, whether they are pursuing genuine national security considerations or partisan objectives. Third, whether they are conducting secret activities efficiently with financial propriety or whether secret funds are splurged for private pleasure,” he wrote.

A former CBI Director, who did not wish to be named, termed the spat between the IB and the CBI “a sad development,” as it had sowed the seeds of discord and mistrust between the agencies. Though all intelligence agencies the world over indulged in one-upmanship, they should refrain from working at cross purposes, as it would only compromise the national security, he said. Even the CIA and the FBI in the U.S. were known to resist sharing information, as it was revealed in the aftermath of 9/11. Perhaps, it is time in India to give a fresh look at the working of its intelligence agencies, particularly at a time when the Supreme Court is hearing a matter on granting autonomy to the CBI and liberating it from “extraneous external influences.”


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