New intelligence technology feeding surge in political espionage

Early this summer, India's intelligence services were facing the most serious internal security threats since 26/11: new urban terror cells, on which there was little information, were known to be planning strikes; Maoist insurgents had expanded their reach and lethality to unprecedented levels; Pakistan's descent into chaos had threatened renewed violence in Jammu and Kashmir.

Few people at the North Block headquarters of India's domestic intelligence service, the Intelligence Bureau, cared: dealing with these national problems, strange as it might sound, isn't their job.

Instead, highly placed intelligence sources have told The Hindu, a large part of the IB's resources were committed, and remain committed, to providing the government raw information and assessments on its increasingly bleak political prospects. In the summer, the IB carefully monitored Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's public meetings in Uttar Pradesh after the events at Bhatta Parsaul; later it sought to penetrate Anna Hazare's anti-corruption mobilisation in New Delhi.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Home Minister P.Chidambaram, the sources alleged, both received briefings on these events, in part based on passive communications intelligence monitoring — technology capable of intercepting staggering amounts of voice, text and e-mail data, without legal authorisation. Earlier this month, The Hindu, in partnership with a media consortium brought together by WikiLeaks, revealed India's intelligence services and police forces had made large-scale acquisitions of such equipment since 26/11.

It is improbable that either the Prime Minister or the Union Home Minister knew what the basis of the information provided to them was — and neither, the sources insisted, had authorised its use. The equipment had in fact been deployed with a legitimate objective — ensuring that at large rallies political leaders were not targeted by terrorists. There are, however, no firewalls in the IB to ensure that data obtained for counter-terrorism aren't available to political analysts; nor is there a system to ensure that the interception of information is first logged, and then destroyed.

Less than a third of the IB's estimated 25,000-strong manpower, two former high-ranking officers told The Hindu, is dedicated to what might be described as national security tasks — like monitoring terrorist groups or extremist organisations. Even that ratio, one serving officer said, was “a charitable assessment.”

There are at least two joint directors — officers of a rank equivalent to inspectors-general of police and joint secretaries to the Government of India, who sit at the apex of the permanent bureaucracy's operational systems — devoted to analysis of the activities of Congress dissidents and non-Congress parties. Five other joint directors have the job of making assessments of the political landscape across India, with the help of the stations the IB has in State capitals, which in turn help the Director brief the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister on potential political challenges emerging across the nation. There are only one or two joint directors for the operations division that deals with counter-terrorism.

Even though it is improbable that the Home Secretary would issue warrants to tap the conversations of opposition leaders, the IB was able to use technology to build a picture of who had been talking to whom and when — and, in some cases, what their conversation had been.

For politicians in power, this kind of information is invaluable; for everyone else, it ought to be a nightmare.

The East India Company's political officers, the seeds which gave birth to the modern IB, saw mass movements as the main threat: for them, state and government were one and the same thing. Little changed in the years after Independence: except in the North-East and Jammu and Kashmir, the IB invested the bulk of its energies on monitoring revolutionary communists. The IB's anti-communist unit, the “B-Wing,” was its most prestigious division; the former National Security Adviser and now-West Bengal Governor, M.K. Narayanan, spent much of his career in the unit.

In 1969, though, after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi broke with the right wing of her party, the B-Wing diminished in size. Mrs Gandhi believed that the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, not the Left, was the principal threat to India — and also, weakened by the rifts in her party, began to use the IB as an independent channel of information-gathering on adversaries and the bureaucracy. “There were plenty of people in the intelligence services who built careers out of feeding her paranoia,” one contemporary recalls.

Following the end of the Emergency, her abuse of the IB led some officers to be hounded out — but there was no effort at structural reform.

In 1987, on the eve of the outbreak of the long jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, the IB station in Srinagar had fewer than 100 personnel — most of them focussed on the Congress' troublesome ally, the National Conference, not the Islamist networks that would soon send thousands of people across the Line of Control for training at Inter-Services Intelligence-run training camps.

Punjab had a far larger IB station — but much of it was, again, committed to watching the many factions of the Shiromani Akali Dal through the 1970s. India, as a result, had next to no information on the training of Khalistan terrorists and their links with the ISI until the early 1980s.

Ever since then, the numbers of IB personnel committed to national security tasks has slowly grown — a process that has been further nudged along by the organisation's current chief, Nehchal Sandhu, himself a career-long counter-terrorism operative.

‘A product of history'

“I think the problem was the product of history,” says A.S. Dulat, a highly regarded career intelligence officer who retired as chief of the Research and Analysis Wing after serving in the IB for over two decades, “the product of time when we could not take our survival as a nation for granted. It is unforgivable that it still goes on today — and it needs to stop, now. It is in the interests of neither our intelligence services nor our polity, just a handful of self-serving individuals.”

Not a few serving intelligence officers agree with that — but national security still hasn't become the IB's principal task: it only began monitoring the Maoist movement late in the day, and police officers in West Bengal, Orissa, and Chhattisgarh told The Hindu that the organisation has only just begun to put together a serious body of intelligence.

Expending staff resources on political intelligence gathering is all the more reprehensible because the IB is desperately understaffed. In 2008, the Union government announced it had sanctioned 6,000 additional staff — expanding the organisation by almost a quarter. In practice, though, the strength of the 25,000-member organisation has stayed static, in part because it hasn't found the kinds of staff it needs, but also because it can train only some 1,200 personnel a year, barely covering for retirement.

Does this mean the IB's political intelligence work should end?

Complex questions

Back in March 1658, Henry Cromwell, Lord Deputy of Ireland and Oliver Cromwell's son, offered an evocative description of what intelligence services are called on to do, in a letter to England's spymaster, John Thurloe: “picking the locks leading into the hearts of wicked men.”

In a thoughtful 2009 volume on domestic intelligence-gathering in the United States, the scholar Brian Johnson pointed out that the reason to have intelligence agencies in the first place was to gather information “not related to the investigation of a known past criminal act or specific planned criminal activity.” That is the job of police services; intelligence organisations must search for crimes no one has — as yet — committed.

The core of the problem is this: we do not all agree on who Henry Cromwell's “wicked men” might be. From 1975, following allegations that the United States' intelligence services were spying on its own citizens, an official committee led by Senator Frank Church issued 14 reports revealing that peaceful dissidents had been targeted for surveillance. Even in countries like the U.S. and the United Kingdom, where oversight mechanisms exist, credible fears of abuse still exist.

“I think we should not have a simplistic view of this issue,” argues Ajit Doval, who served as IB Director in 2004-2005 and was the first civilian to be awarded a Kirti Chakra, for a daring undercover operation that led to the successful conclusion of the second siege of the Golden Temple. “The fact is that in India, there are many political movements which may not be terrorist in character, but are none the less real threats to the nation. The Khalistan movement was not, after all, initially violent — but better intelligence on its intentions would have saved lives.”

“The distinction I would draw,” Mr. Doval says, “is this: political intelligence should be focussed on gathering information on actual and potential national security threats, and the despicable behaviour of some individual intelligence officers, who seek to curry political favour.”

MI5's history

It isn't always easy, however, to know precisely what political intelligence actually is. From the eminent scholar Christopher Andrew's Defence of the Realm, MI5's authorised history, we know that MI5 monitored left-wing politicians and the trade union movement. In an article written this summer, The Guardian's Martin Kettle recounted reading now-declassified MI5 files on his father, Arnold Kettle. Arnold Kettle had been a lifelong communist and, back in university, a friend of the Soviet Union's double-agents inside MI6, Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess.

MI5 carefully followed Dr. Kettle's activities, down to recording his lectures on Shakespearean literature, and his intellectual debt to F.R. Leavis. Their only substantial discovery was, however, that Dr. Kettle was homosexual — a “secret” his family had known for years.

Mr. Kettle, interestingly, said he believed MI5's decision to spy on his father was correct: in its early years, after all, the party he belonged to wanted to overthrow the regime and was receiving foreign finance to do so. By the 1950s though, he pointed out, the communist party “wasn't going anywhere as a revolutionary force, and was increasingly looking for democratic and liberal legitimacy.” His father remained under surveillance, though.

There is no simple answer — but in India, where political parties have shown little interest in understanding and debating even a private member's bill seeking oversight of our intelligence services, the first steps towards one are yet to be taken.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 3:09:58 AM |

Next Story