Defence of the realm

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Chidambaram backs unified security ops. But too many spooks at cross-purposes are spoiling the plot, says  Seema Mustafa

Illustration: Samia Singh

WITH MK Narayanan summarily shunted out as National Security Advisor (NSA), the political dust has settled on Union Home Minister P Chidambaram’s “proposal” to set up a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC). The strategic establishment is now poring over the details of what promises to be yet another revamp of the ministry and the intelligence agencies.

The reaction is at best mixed. While some like former Minister of Internal Security Arun Nehru feels the Centre is “bumbling towards the correct system”, former deputy NSA Satish Chandra says there is no clarity at all in the government as to “where we are going”. Intelligence officials are even more dismissive, pointing out that they have been moved “back and forth” so many times that they have to consciously remember who they are reporting to, or what’s their actual brief.

Chidambaram’s proposal hit the headlines as it was seen as a move to dilute the powers of Narayanan whose relations with the former had seen considerable strain since Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) retained power after last year’s Lok Sabha elections. Narayanan found himself sidelined during the daily meetings on intelligence and security held in the North Block, and would often come out without contributing much to the discussions.

There was also the fact that the Home Minister had chosen to detail a major proposal in a public address, without seeking Cabinet clearance or even finalising the draft proposal to present to the Cabinet for approval. The proposal is at a nascent stage, and it will take at least a year before the Minister can claim any success in implementing the concept that he has borrowed, almost letter and verse, from the United States. Arun Nehru finds the premature announcement “strange”. Would he, as minister, have spoken prior to Cabinet clearance? “Absolutely not,” Nehru says. “This is not done.”

 

Too many masters Commandos in a training drill
Photo: Reuters

The NCTC proposal has several components. Foremost, Chidambaram has suggested that the Home Minister be given full charge of security while the ministry’s “mundane” functions, such as human rights and disaster management, shifted to a separate department.

Two, he wants the NCTC to have a sweeping mandate covering intelligence, investigation and operations. Three, the Multi Agency Centre (MAC), which was set up after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008, would provide the core for the NCTC, or, as the minister said, “transform itself into the NCTC”.

Four, intelligence and security agencies, some of which are currently reporting to the Prime Minister or the NSA, would be brought under the NCTC. Five, a police or military officer would head the NCTC, not a bureaucract. And six, the agency would report directly to the Home Minister, who would thus emerge as perhaps the most important man in the Cabinet.

Chidambaram has himself conceded the first of many problems that are likely to hound his proposal. “It is my fervent plea that this should not result in turf wars,” he said. Sources say the concept was ambitious, and the execution “almost impossible”, as the multiplicity of organisations has already created chaos to a point where the intelligence agencies are scrambling to make sense of a brief that has got increasingly complicated. “Concepts are always good,” says former RAW chief Vikram Sood, “but the devil is in the detail”. Terrorism, he says, could “originate in Iraq, pass through Afghanistan, go on to Malaysia and then come to Varanasi. How do we deal with this? Do we have the expertise, the resources”?

Instead of strengthening the system, new ministers tend to fiddle with existing organisations, create new bodies, without doing anything substantive — like, say, beefing up security after the Mumbai attacks. Maritime security is not in place. Indian Navy officials admit that the coastline is still vulnerable as manpower and equipment are still being acquired. Intelligence agencies, too, say they need more money and manpower as also better equipment, most of which is still in the procurement stage. Narayanan is blamed for creating divisions in the intelligence network. As Satish Chandra points out, he created so many different units that “you had people working in the same building without even talking to each other”.

‘From a state of no analysis, we have gravitated to one of a plethora of analysis’

The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) constitutes a good example of political inconsistency and incompetence. More than a quarter century ago, late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi bifurcated it and created a separate JIC for internal security. As Prime Minister, her son Rajiv Gandhi put them back together. During his brief 11-month rule in 1997-98, former Prime Minister IK Gujral wanted to crack the monopoly of intelligence officers but could not decide on appointing a military official as chairman.

Subsequently, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made the JIC a subordinate body of his new flagship, the NSCS. As former RAW official B Raman has written in a letter to the new NSA, Shiv Shankar Menon, there are three bodies now dealing with intelligence analysis: JIC, NSCS and the National Security Advisory Board. “From a state of no analysis,” wrote Raman, “We have gravitated to one of a plethora of analysis.”

The National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) is another indicator of bureaucratic resistance to change. It was set up after a group of ministers’ recommendation that the Aviation Research Centre (ARC) become a part of the new organisation. To cut a long story short, today ARC continues to function under RAW. The NTRO has little more in its brief than monitoring satellites, and both are roughly doing the same work at different levels.

The NCTC, in seeking to bring agencies currently working under the cabinet secretariat, the NSA and the Prime Minister all under the Home Ministry is, thus, an overly complicated project presented by a minister who is perceived by his own colleagues as being highly ambitious. Prime Minister Singh has been silent about the proposal, and it remains to be seen whether the UPA government will spend the year setting up yet another inneffective body, or in actually strengthening the system and making it work to prevent another terror attack. Intelligence experts agree that both cannot happen together — it will have to be one or the other.

WRITER’S EMAIL
seemamustafa@gmail.com

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