In his statement to Parliament on Monday denying allegations that the National Technical Research Organisation had conducted unauthorised phone taps, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said the NTRO “is a technical organisation of the government and I make this statement on the behalf of the government.”

If his reference to “government” seems unusually vague for an establishment normally preoccupied with turf, this is because the NTRO is an orphan in the ministerial system of administration — an intelligence agency that reports directly to the National Security Adviser, not to the Home Minister, the Defence Minister or the Prime Minister.

Set up in 2004 with a mandate to bring state-of-the-art intelligence gathering and surveillance equipment to India, the NTRO was originally envisaged to be a ‘facilitator' rather than a producer, processor or consumer of intelligence. In other words, it was meant to deploy its capabilities as part of the operations that other agencies like the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing were running.

Though the lack of parliamentary and judicial oversight means the IB and the R&AW have tremendous latitude to tap telephone conversations and conduct surveillance, the fact that both agencies are staffed by officers drawn mainly from the Indian Police Service or other Central services means tremendous caution is exercised by them in conducting operations involving politicians.

Under the Telegraph Act and the Supreme Court's guidelines, phone taps require sanction in writing by the Union Home Secretary or the State Home Secretary. Sometimes, sanction is sought and granted post-facto, say officials familiar with the way these agencies run. But, they say, it is hard to imagine officers running the risk of tapping the phone of a politician or an “influential” person without obtaining authorisation in writing. When such authorisation is difficult or impossible to obtain, the best the IB or the R&AW can hope to do is catch the politician in conversation with another target.

Established in 2004 with obscure parentage, ad hoc staffing and a flexible mandate, the NTRO does not operate under similar constraints. Headed by a former DRDO scientist, K.V.S.S. Prasad Rao, the agency has also been plagued by factionalism within its staff and divisions between scientists and non-scientists. As a result, allegations about the misuse of funds and abuse of technology have begun to surface.

Sources say that if the examples recounted by Outlook magazine are correct, there are two possibilities, both of them worrying.

The first is that some NTRO officers have been deploying the equipment under their control on a ‘private' or freelance basis. The second is that they were executing unwritten orders received from the top. M.K. Narayanan was the NSA at the time the conversations of politicians like CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat, Congress politician Digvijay Singh and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar were allegedly intercepted in 2007 and 2008. Since existing guidelines do not grant the NSA sanctioning authority and Mr. Chidambaram told Parliament the UPA government had not “authorised” any tapping or eavesdropping on political leaders, these intercepts could have been obtained without due permission, though for what end is not at all clear.

Keywords: NTROphone tapping