By B. Raman
Some developments of recent months have highlighted the need for a tight control over electronic snooping by intelligence and security agencies.
The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) stressed the need for improving our technical intelligence (TECHINT) capabilities by setting up an Indian equivalent of the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), which is exclusively responsible for the collection of communications intelligence.
Thus came into existence the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) as the primary TECHINT agency of the Government of India. Simultaneously, since the Kargil conflict of 1999 and the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US,TECHINT capabilities have been strengthened in individual agencies of our intelligence community.
This period has also seen a mushrooming of private telecommunication companies. Some of them are of foreign origin, including from China. As a result, the weak architecture and dos and don’ts laid down before 1999 for a strict, centralised control over the snooping process have been further weakened—with agencies not authorised to do snooping managing to do so by various means such as allegedly using their contacts in the private telecom companies.
Private telecom companies have been doing their own snooping of each other to meet the requirements of competition. Thus, snooping capabilities have expanded beyond imagination over the last 10 years. The evolution of the centralised control architecture has not kept pace with the expansion of the snooping capabilities.
As a result, one finds that the protection of the right to communications privacy of the citizens of this country no longer receives the kind of attention that it used to receive before 1999. A wake-up call on the dangers of unbridled electronic snooping was sounded in the case of the so-called Niiru Radia tapes. One saw the worrisome phenomenon of a multiplicity of agencies doing snooping in total violation of the do’s and don’t’s laid down and leaking out tampered versions of the intercepts in total disregard of the right to communications privacy of innocent citizens.
Recent reports in the media indicate that there has been no attempt to draw the right lessons from the Radia tapes controversy. It would seem that more and more capabilities for snooping on communications of the citizens are being acquired by different agencies, without strengthening the safety precautions to ensure that the capabilities are used only against established or strongly-suspected wrong-doers in accordance with a laid-down procedure approved at the highest level.
If the Government does not immediately act to strengthen the mechanism for preventing the misuse of these capabilities, we may find that there is no longer any restraints in the matter of interception of communications and that electronic snoopers of Indian and foreign origin have been running amok across our communications spectra.
More violation of the rights of the citizens and weakening of our national security may be the ultimate outcome. It is worrisome that none of these issues receives the attention of our political class, which is more interested in playing partisan politics than in debating issues relating to our national security— in a professional manner without politicising the debate. The tendency of our political class to politicise every debate on security issues has been the bane of our national security management.
The debate should also focus on the need for setting up at least a modicum of parliamentary oversight over our intelligence community and over the way they are using their newly-acquired capabilities and technologies.
The question of introducing some kind of parliamentary oversight has been debated from time to time since 1989 when V.P.Singh, the then Prime Minister, raised it for the first time.
There has been no forward movement since then due to lack of interest in our political class and resistance from the intelligence agencies which fear – not without valid reasons—that in the era of coalition politics and increasing nexus between sections of the political class and the criminal world, it would be inadvisable to introduce the same methods of parliamentary oversight as in Western countries, particularly in the US and the UK.
However strong and valid the reservations of the intelligence agencies, we should not take their no as the final answer. It is important to devise ways of parliamentary oversight which would suit the conditions in the Indian political landscape. This is a matter that needs to be examined by a high-powered committee.