By B. Raman
Since the Indo-Pakistan conflict in the Kargil heights in 1999, there has been a major increase in the Technical Intelligence (TECHINT) capabilities of the Indian security community, which comprises the intelligence agencies of the Government of India and the intelligence divisions of the State Police.
A new organization — initially called the National Technical Facilities Organisation (NTFO) and subsequently renamed the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) — has come up to focus exclusively on the collection of TECHINT. It is somewhat — but not totally — similar to the National Security Agency (NSA) of the USA.
However, whereas the NSA comes under the control of the US Defence Secretary and is headed by a serving military officer of the rank of Lt. Gen, whose appointment by the President is subject to confirmation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the head of the NTRO, called Chairman, is taken on rotation from the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
Whereas the head of the NSA is a serving officer, the Chairmen of the NTRO have come from a hotch-potch background — not found fit to head the organization to which they originally belonged, but sought to be placated by being made the chief of the NTRO with a fixed tenure. The selection process is not subject to review or scrutiny by any external mechanism — either of the Parliament or outside it.
There is a greater possibility of the political misuse of a technical intelligence organization than of a human intelligence organization. They, therefore, have to be subject to even more strict external controls than HUMINT organizations. The dangers of misuse have increased due to the easy availability of modern snooper technology and gadgets. When one was totally dependent on landline telephones for internal communications, the scope for misuse was limited, but mobile technology has placed in the hands of not only the State, but also non-state actors — terrorists, insurgents, organized crime groups, narcotics smugglers, corporate and political rivals — immense possibilities of snooping on the State, on each other and among themselves.
The creation of the NTRO has been accompanied by the strengthening of the TECHINT capabilities of not only the IB, the R&AW and the military intelligence agencies, but also of the police and a number of other departments of the Government of India which have no business to indulge in their own snooping for their own purpose. The Radia Tapes affair brought out that the Income Tax Department has probably acquired its own snooping capability which was sought to be misused by unidentified elements — either in the Department itself or outside — to besmirch the personal reputation and damage the professional career of innocent personalities like Barkha Dutt, the well-known TV journo, and Ratan Tata, the highly reputed corporate leader.
Action to prevent the misuse of the vastly expanding TECHINT capabilities now available at the Centre and in the States demands a centralized and strictly implemented control over the entire snooping process — starting from the procurement of equipment, the recruitment and training of snoopers, the utilization of the funds placed at their disposal, the procedure followed for snooping to ensure that snooping is done strictly in accordance with law for meeting clearly-defined national security objectives etc.
In the US, the NSA provides such a centralized set-up. It does the snooping on behalf of all Government Departments after they have obtained the required authorization for the snooping from the competent authority. In India, internal snooping used to be the responsibility of the IB, which had the required technical capability and human and financial resources and which used to do it in accordance with an authorized procedure.
The Radia Tapes affair showed that there has probably been a total dilution of the procedure and controls with the result that anybody who wants to snoop has been doing so in reckless disregard of the requirements of the need and obligation to protect the privacy of the citizens and to observe the requirements of the law. Snooping has become the name of the game in many Government departments and State Police.
Another worrisome development has been the evident resort to random snooping. There are two kinds of snooping — targeted snooping of suspects against whom there is suspicion of wrong-doing and random snooping in order to monitor what has been going on in cyber space and mobile frequencies. In the US, whereas targeted snooping is allowed subject to certain conditions and procedures, random snooping, which is a violation of the privacy and human rights of citizens, is totally forbidden. The Clinton and Bush Administrations tried hard to give limited powers of random snooping to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the NSA for counter-terrorism purposes, but the Congress disallowed it. Barkha, Vir Sanghvi and Tata were apparently the victims of illegal random snooping by the Income Tax Department. Had a similar incident happened in the US, not only would there have been a detailed Congressional enquiry into it, but the judiciary would have also awarded heavy damages to the victims.
In India, the absence of effective external controls over organizations having the capability for snooping facilitates the misuse of the capabilities for purposes not connected with national security and for besmirching the well-earned reputation of innocent citizens, who find themselves without any defence because they do not know and understand what the hell has been going on.
It is important for the Government to go into this matter and establish an architecture of legal and procedural safeguards to ensure that our TECHINT capabilities are used only against suspected wrong-doers and not against innocent citizens — either consciously or unconsciously.
Ideally, as in many democracies such as the US and even highly security-conscious Israel, a parliamentary oversight committee for intelligence should be on top of the safeguards architecture. There has been strong resistance from the Indian intelligence community to giving Parliament any oversight role in such matters relating to the intelligence agencies. The political leadership hasn’t had the courage to overrule the nay-sayers in the intelligence community and set up a parliamentary oversights mechanism.
While trying to overcome the resistance from the intelligence community, the Government should set up a Cabinet Committee on Intelligence — separate from the Cabinet Committee on Security — to go into such matters in a regular and systematic manner. It should be chaired by the Prime Minister with the National Security Adviser as the member-secretary and should consist of the Home Minister and the Defence Minister. The very fact that such a high-level committee has been monitoring the use of the TECHINT capabilities to prevent misuse would act as a deterrent against tempted misuse.