Four days prior to the 7 September 2011 blast outside the Delhi High Court, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), India’s prime domestic intelligence agency, generated an input about a terror plot in the national capital. The input spoke about a plot involving four persons from Karachi, Srinagar, Jammu and Delhi that might result in “some violent activity” in the national capital. All that the ‘alert’ mentioned was four names and an atypical money trail that started from Srinagar and ended in Delhi. Bereft of any details, the input made little sense to the police establishment, who were tasked with preventing the “violent activity”. The blast claimed 14 lives and left at least 88 persons injured. Home Minister P Chidambaram rued in the Parliament that the Delhi Police could not prevent the attack in spite of an intelligence alert having been shared with it, thereby allowing the media to go berserk lampooning the police incapacity. The truth, however, was that the so called ‘input’ was no way sufficient to enable any police action leading to the busting of the terror plot.
The above narrative is certainly not an isolated case. A common and recurrent complaint by the police officers on duty is that on most occasions the inputs landing on their tables are generic and theoretical in nature. These one page alerts generated almost on a daily basis by the multiplicity of agencies on the ground level may appear impressive to a record keeper, but in operational terms, these are plain unusable trash.
What are the challenges for intelligence gathering in India? Is it a problem of capacity, systemic oversight or something else? As India adds bricks each passing day to its counter-terror architecture, what are the areas that need attention and what are the chances that the existing loopholes can be plugged with the ongoing projects?
The article argues that this condition of a paralysis of intelligence collection is imposed on the country by a system shaped by a plethora of actors- located both in the official circles as well as outside of it. The present state of affairs of the country struggling to generate adequate amount of actionable intelligence is a result of both historical political anomalies and also of the continuing policies that believe in creating grand new structures at the expense of basic principles. In addition, the role of the non-state actors, i.e. the extremists/ militants and insurgents, in accentuating the problem by systematically targeting the intelligence gathering apparatus also remain significant.
(i) Question of Numbers and Quality:
That there are about 20 different agencies- big and small- collecting ground level intelligence in the country might sound impressive. But the reality of that each of these agencies are vastly understaffed. Consider for example, the case of the Intelligence Bureau. As per an 2008 estimate, it had a staff strength of about 25000 including technical and cyber experts, against a recommended strength of 40000. Worse still, even this beleaguered staff strength was marked by a vacancy rate of 20 percent.
Strange and outright appalling it may sound, but divided into numerous subsidiary units, the IB today manages its operation for the entire country with a paltry strength of only 5,000 field level officers. This miniscule number of officers for a population of 1.2 billion specifically to gather purely security related information would still have been somewhat manageable with exceptionally qualified officers, had most of them not been tasked predominantly to collect political intelligence to be used by the ruling parties. It is no surprise that while the IB has excelled in becoming an effective tool at the hands of the ruling party, its contribution to preventing terror attack is in a state of perennial decline.
At least for the past three years, the IB is out on a mission to fill up the vacant posts. Regular recruitment is on for Assistant Central Intelligence Officer (ACIO) posts, the lower rank officers in the agency, equivalent to that of a police sub-inspector or an upper division clerk in a government department. However, it has not been a smooth ride. Media reports have detailed how only half of the short-listed candidates show up for the entrance examination. Meagre salary, poorly crafted professional progression scheme within the agency and a dodgy existence makes the IB profession an unattractive career option. “We don’t get as many applications as we should”, remains IB’s way of nitpicking.
A different problem marks the hunt for senior officers- that of an insufficiently deep skilled human capital pool. The fact that the agencies do not use an open and direct recruitment channel and follow an opaque system of staffing of people who have been rejected for other services with low marks in the civil services examination, does not allow the IB to recruit the best available minds. In addition, only a handful of candidates from the science, technology, and engineering stream get into the agencies. A recent taskforce report “Reforming India’s Intelligence Structure” by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), noted that the candidates appearing such job interviews lack even basic general knowledge and awareness on current affairs.
(ii) External Weakness:
Given that India’s rather protracted experience with terror that has much to do with externally supported terror, it is natural that the operations of the domestic agencies need constantly to be supplemented by the efforts of the external internal agencies in the neighbouring countries. In this context, the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency, is also responsible for internal security. Its success in monitoring the activities of the anti-India terrorist groups and their sponsors in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh is critical to stopping attacks that have an ‘external’ footprint. Existing literature, however, points at a pathetic state of capacity among the RAW, especially in Pakistan.
While much of the blame for the state of affairs goes to two Prime Ministers- Morarji Desai and Inder Kumar Gujral- who dismantled the agency’s network within that country during their tenures, successive governments too have been lackadaisical in terms of pushing the agency to regain strength in that country. Not just the government has neglected the critical aspect of RAW’s covert operations, but the selection of some most undeserving chiefs for the organisation has been its undoing.
(iii) A Misplaced Priority:
What is missing in the country’s search for a counter-terrorism architecture is its focus on the basics. The debate over new institutions and new acts to deal with terrorism continues to ignore the need to revive and strengthen ground level intelligence generating capacity. Incidentally, none of the new structures set up since the 2008 Mumbai attacks focus on the quality of intelligence gathering.
One of the much touted achievements of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in the post 26/11 period has been the set up of the subsidiary Multi-Agency Centres at the states level (SMACs) adding to the already existing MAC at the Centre, headed by a part-time additional director of the IB. Home Minister Mr. Chidambaram maintains that these subsidiary MACs facilitate seamless integration of all available intelligence collected by different agencies. While this might have been true, the new set up has done little in terms of enhancing the quality of intelligence gathering, which continues to remain at an appallingly low level.
Neither the MAC nor the SMACs collect intelligence or carry out intelligence operations. Intelligence sharing within the MAC set up is mostly informal and unstructured, often leaving gaping holes. In effect, the integration of intelligence has merely meant integration of bad intelligence. One of the recent examples of limitations of the MAC set up was the early May 2012 release of the photographs of the five Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) terrorists who were subsequently found to be ordinary civilians unconnected to terrorism. IB had doubted the authenticity of the information collected by the RAW. But that did not stop the information being relayed to all concerned, leaving many red faces within the government on subsequent days.
(iv) Retreat of Intelligence:
No other conflict situation in the country has exposed the vulnerability in the intelligence collection mechanism than left-wing extremism. Both the state and the central forces have suffered tremendously due to a complete absence of ground level intelligence in almost all the affected states. Strangely enough, yet much in line with the current strategy of security sector reforms, such weakness among the existing agencies is paving the way for creation of new agencies. For example, the lack of confidence in and inadequacy of the intelligence passed on to the central forces has forced the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to generate its own intelligence by developing an internal intel wing.
Interestingly the challenges posed by the Naxal theatres in terms of intelligence collection have a lot in common with the American efforts in the Af-Pak region. Inputs have indicated that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the lead agency in the hunt for the Al-Qaeda cadres in the Af-Pak region, faced with an acute shortage of local officers, continues to employ young and inexperienced Caucasian-looking men, who stand out because of their lack of knowledge on the region’s culture and issues. They have been easily identifiable not just by their appearance, but also, according to some reports, by their lack of merit to be intelligence agents. The IB and the intelligence units of the state police in the Naxal theatres face a similar dilemma of deploying less qualified officers on the ground. Dwarfed by the absence of basic skills such as linguistic knowledge, IB agents struggle to understand the socio-political culture of the societies they operate within. Any intelligence they provide is thus based on very weak platforms and are hardly accurate.
Just like the Af-Pak region, where the Al-Qaeda leaders are based in the remotest and most insular regions, making it almost impossible for the ‘foreign’ intelligence operatives to mingle with the local population while on their job, collecting information about the Naxals too has become problematic in the absence of the local population to do the job for the agencies. Similar to the Al Qaeda/ Taliban in the FATA region of Pakistan who kill locals for even talking to foreign looking men, the Naxals too have run an extremely effective annihilation campaign against the tribal ‘police informers’. MHA data indicates that between 2007 and 2011, as many as 920 civilians were killed by the Naxals after being termed as ‘police informers’ in the affected states. While bulk of these killed may actually not have been the sources for the agencies, such systemic annihilation allows the extremists to maintain a much superior human intelligence as well as counter-intelligence vis-a-vis the official agencies in the affected areas. It is of little surprise that intelligence collection has remained one of the most arduous challenges for the state in the Naxal belt today. The CIA manages to fill in the weakness by its reliance on Technical Intelligence (TECHINT) and the unrelenting use of drones against the Al-Qaeda. The Indian government’s options are quite limited on this front.
The Way Ahead:
Comprehensive reforms is obviously a need of the hour, targeting all the existing loopholes. There is an urgent need to improve recruitment through deputation, promotions, training for new recruits and better quality supervision of operations in intelligence agencies. Time has also come to take a fresh look at the much delayed project of separating the investigation and law and order functions of the police and have a system of preventive intelligence gathering system in place. Way back in September 2006, the Supreme Court had asked the central government to initiate the project. Little has moved in that front in the last six years.
This article appeared Geopolitics at and is reprinted with permission.