New intelligence technology feeding surge in political espionage

December 05, 2011 12:00 am | Updated 04:24 am IST - NEW DELHI:

Large part of Intelligence Bureau remains deployed on political tasks, not national security duties

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.

(Continued on Op-Ed Page)

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