In September, 1970, J. Edgar Hoover wrote a secret memo which pithily explained the difference between criminal investigators and spies: the “purpose of counter-intelligence action,” it stated, “is to disrupt, and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.” Four decades on, as Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram prepares to give teeth to India's new National Counter-Terrorism Centre, the words of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's legendary — and paranoiac — founding director should help Indians understand why the idea is profoundly misguided. For years now, India's intelligence services have complained — sometimes with justification — that State governments have been reluctant to act on credible intelligence of counter-terrorism value. Political motives, they point out, have led governments as disparate as Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar not to arrest figures involved with Hindutva, Islamist or Maoist groups. India's Constitution, Mr. Chidambaram has pointed out, makes it incumbent on the Central government to “maintain internal security.” The Ministry of Home Affairs' proposal to arm the NCTC with the power to conduct searches and make arrests derives, he argues, from this obligation.

Mr. Chidambaram may be right about the Constitution but there are three sound reasons why the mounting concerns over the NCTC must be taken seriously. First, the Intelligence Bureau is not an organisation that is, or ought to be, concerned with criminal justice. Like other intelligence services across the world, its task is to gather information that the police can use to guide and inform the course of a criminal investigation, not to make judgments on whether that intelligence has value as evidence. Blurring the distinction between intelligence-gathering and policing will open up the possibility of abuses — abuses for which Hoover's FBI became notorious. The Union government already has an investigative service with a nationwide mandate, the National Investigation Agency. This makes it even less clear why the NCTC needs the same powers. In India, secondly, the concerns are amplified because the IB has historically taken an expansive view of national security — notably, by devoting extensive resources to political surveillance. Handing it the power to arrest will expand the possibility of political misuse. Thirdly, as experts have pointed out, India's counter-terrorism efforts have floundered because State police forces lack the training, resources and manpower needed to conduct effective investigations. Arming the NCTC with the power to arrest will not solve this core problem. Like other intelligence-related reforms, the NCTC's powers ought to have been subject to an informed and vigorous debate in Parliament. It still isn't too late to conduct one.

More In: Editorial | Opinion