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India: Intelligence Reform Without Cultural Shift In Approach Will Be Non-Starter


By A. K. Verma

A discourse is on in the country on the need for intelligence reforms and its future contours. Think tanks are busy on the subject. The Vice President spoke about it publicly during a talk at the RAW HQrs in January last year. An MP is proposing to introduce a private bill in the Lok Sabha on the subject in the near future.

There can be no disagreement anywhere that the quality of intelligence mechanisms and their products need urgently to be upgraded. History establishes that intelligence can be a game changer. As challenges in a rapidly changing geostrategic environment around India keep mounting, the inevitability of having to make difficult choices must be recognized.


The magnitude of the tasks ahead can be best illustrated by a small analogy. We have an aero plane, engineered decades earlier, to fly at a height of 5000 feet. Now aero planes are needed to fly at 20000 feet and more. No amount of technological tinkering with this plane will enable it to reach the requisite heights. An invention of an entirely new machine alone can be the answer. The intelligence organisations of today largely resemble the aero plane in this example. To fulfill the requirements of a modern day intelligence set-up fundamental changes are called for.

Two major factors stand in obstruction. One is the reigning political and bureaucratic culture. The other is the structure of the intelligence. Both must alter radically if intelligence has to keep its tryst with destiny.

Culture is a phenomenon which takes decades and centuries to evolve and change. It took the French many years after reformation and renaissance in Europe to develop the culture of composite nationalism and agree among themselves to the frontiers of the French nation which today remain the same as established two hundred years ago. France became the first country to become a nation from several states of French people. Therefore to expect that the political and bureaucratic culture will change in the country within a reasonable time will remain a futile dream.

What however is within the realm of possibility is to change the structure of intelligence. The CIA provides a good model and its achievements in the field of intelligence are quite inspiring, though it has had its share of failures. Quite often the failures were the result of lack of co-ordination and improper assessments, not production of intelligence.

Without a shot being fired and foreign troops invading, the Soviet Union disintegrated largely because of uncompromising psy- war and other operations of the CIA. In Afghanistan the Taliban was ousted by use of US air power, operating from ships, Diego Garcia and other bases including those in USA, and just 3000 or so number of people from the CIA and special operation groups. No military boots from the West stepped into Afghanistan till after the Taliban had been ousted.

Indian intelligence needs to be established on the same basis, insulating it from political and bureaucratic controls except where policy and objectives are concerned. The intelligence organisations should be made totally autonomous with regards to the operations and internal administration. These organisations have to function unconventionally the nature of which the politicians and bureaucrats fail to understand, creating hurdles.

The foundations of the organisations rest on the recruitment and training of the correct individual. They must have total freedom to recruit from wherever they deem necessary on terms which will attract the best talent in the country from the universities, industry, media, specialists in engineering etc. There will always be a huge requirement of R&D within and the cutting edge can be achieved by recruiting the very best. This is how the CIA functions. Internal mechanisms can be developed to root out nepotism and cronyism in recruitment. Apart from the freedom to hire they should also have the liberty to fire. Such a system has produced for the CIA the best band of operational officers in the world.

The recruits will be members of the in-house services. No outside service including IPS should be allowed to dominate though there may be a revolving door policy to admit anyone from anywhere found suitable.

The creation of an elite cadre within the organisations cannot be over emphasized. Mr. B.N. Mullick, the second DIB in the country after independence, had created an earmarking scheme in the IB which became operational in 1954, earmarking 4 or 5 top candidates selected by UPSC for IPS. They worked in the IB for their entire career after initial training. With further rigorous training within the IB, they became an elite core, extremely efficient, committed, and excelling both in operations and analysis. They employed caution but were not risk averse. All the DIBs subsequently have come from this corps. Several years later the scheme was wound up due to bureaucratic pressure, opposing continuous stay of such IPS officers in Delhi and other posts of IB when they could not have a similar privilege of spending their entire career outside their state cadres. The last DIB from the EMS retired last year. The political controllers of the day could not prevent the demise of this scheme. It is a telling commentary on their vision, understanding and management of intelligence.

Talking of commitment an anecdote will speak volumes. In 1988 when Afghanistan had become an extremely dangerous place during President Najibullah’s regime the diplomats of the western countries including the US had been withdrawn enbloc. The Indian Government also recalled their staff with the diplomats to Delhi. The Foreign Secretary and the Indian Ambassador at Kabul before returning. Advised the R&AW to get their team also back to Delhi. But, this team stayed on and kept the Indian flag flying over the Embassy while the MEA staff went home.

The structures of the organisations have to be founded in law to ensure autonomy and insulation from non professionals. The law should provide for an Ombudsman as well as parliamentary committees that can evaluate performance with respect to objectives of the prescribed charters but all operational matters should remain outside their jurisdiction. There should, thus, be no executive control save as provided under the parliamentary laws.

Accepting autonomy for these organisations will remain a touchy question with the political and bureaucratic classes in the country. Police reforms remain to be carried out in the country despite Supreme Court judgments and prodding since the State Governments do not wish to loose their control over such a powerful instrument as the Police. The CBI also remains similarly shackled. Therefore, despite the growing awareness that intelligence reforms are the need of the day, meaningful progress in this field will remain unpredictable.

The reforms, as and when the discourse reaches the stage of finality, should also focus on the role of the National Security Adviser (NSA) about which there is much confusion today. Is he an intelligence czar or the master co-coordinator or the principal analyst for the Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS), the highest policy making body in the country? Some enlightened and knowledgeable people hold the view that he can be dispensed with. Besides, if he is to remain constantly traveling to foreign parts, one will start wondering whether he can do justice to all the three roles combined. Ideally, he should be the recipient of finalized assessments on the basis of which he places before the CCS a range of considered scenarios for policy options.

On the other hand, all flow of intelligence products should be directed towards another single authority, the National Intelligence Coordinator (NIC) who will prepare the national intelligence estimates, analysis and assessments and besides, identify the intelligence gaps to different agencies. He will also be responsible for ensuring coordinated field actions, especially during fast moving developments. The authority for executive control to bring about coordination thus rests at his level. Operational responsibility will be the business of the agencies. In a democracy like India with multi faceted challenges of its external and internal realities, graduating from a regional power to a world status, from a soft power to hard power, retaining two separate institutions, NSA and NIC, would be advisable, the latter feeding the former on assessments. The former will have a much wider canvass to take care of with foreign policy increasingly getting entwined with economic and defense real politick calculations. The latter will provide the material and the evidence to formulate and tighten the nuts and bolts of policy.

(The author can be reached at e-mail: [email protected])

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

One thought on “India: Intelligence Reform Without Cultural Shift In Approach Will Be Non-Starter

  • February 28, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    What a role model he has chosen for baharat,CIA?After the debacle of Ronald Davis,it shows how good CIA is as a model.We will be quite happy in Pakistan,if RAW follows CIA.


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