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  Opinion   Columnists  20 Jul 2020  Manish Tewari | Parliament oversight key for reforms in intelligence agencies

Manish Tewari | Parliament oversight key for reforms in intelligence agencies

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Jul 20, 2020, 4:34 pm IST
Updated : Jul 20, 2020, 4:34 pm IST

There is an unnecessary and manufactured culture of secrecy enveloping our national security establishment

An Indian army vehicle moves towards Ladakh, amid India-China border dispute in eastern Ladakh, at Bara-lacha la mountain pass in Lahual district. PTI Photo
 An Indian army vehicle moves towards Ladakh, amid India-China border dispute in eastern Ladakh, at Bara-lacha la mountain pass in Lahual district. PTI Photo

The multiple Chinese intrusions into India, occupation of our territory and the brutal murder of our soldiers undoubtedly constitute an intelligence failure. It is redux Kargil 1999 when the Pakistani army fronted by mercenaries and terrorists occupied the commanding heights that overlooked the Srinagar-Leh highway.

However, despite repeated intelligence failures over the years, there is a demonstrated reluctance by the political and administrative elite to shine the light of accountability on our intelligence structures.

The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) headed by the late Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam (the current foreign minister’s father) had the following to say about the Kargil incursions in its executive summary.

“The Review Committee had before it overwhelming evidence that the Pakistani armed intrusion in the Kargil sector came as a complete and total surprise to the Indian government, Army and intelligence agencies as well as to the J&K state government and its agencies. The Committee did not come across any agency or individual who was able clearly to assess before the event the possibility of a large scale Pakistani military intrusion across the Kargil heights.” A more damning indictment could not have been handed down.

The committee further stated, “It is not widely appreciated in India that the primary responsibility for collecting external intelligence, including that relating to a potential adversary’s military deployment, is vested in RAW. The DGMI’s capability for intelligence collection is limited. It is essentially restricted to the collection of tactical military intelligence and some amount of signal intelligence and its main role is to make strategic and tactical military assessments and disseminate them within the Army.

Many countries have established separate Defence Intelligence Agencies and generously provided them with resources and equipment to play a substantive role in intelligence collection.

For historical reasons, the Indian Armed Forces are not so mandated. Therefore, it is primarily RAW which must provide intelligence about a likely attack, whether across a broad or narrow front.” This has changed somewhat with the constitution of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) on March 5, 2002.

The KRC report was equally critical of the role of the domestic intelligence service: “The Intelligence Bureau is meant to collect intelligence within the country and is the premier agency for counter-intelligence.

This agency got certain inputs on activities in the FCNA region which were considered important enough by the Director, IB to be communicated over his signature on June 2, 1998 to the Prime Minister, home minister, Cabinet secretary, home secretary and director general military operations.

This communication was not addressed to the three officials most concerned with this information, namely secretary (RAW), who is responsible for external intelligence and had the resources to follow up the leads in the IB report; chairman JIC, who would have taken such information into account in JIC assessments; and Director General Military Intelligence.”

Interestingly, the Group of Ministers (GOM) constituted by Prime Minister Vajpayee in the wake of the Kargil Review Committee report devoted a full chapter to reviewing the intelligence apparatus but it was dropped from the report that was made public with the following notation, “Chapter III Intelligence Apparatus Page Nos. 16-40 [Government Security Deletion] Para's 3.1 to 3.72 [Government Security Deletion]”.

What may have transpired in these deliberations was conjectured by the strategic commentator Manoj Joshi in a March 2014 policy report, entitled “The Unending Quest to Reform India's National Security System”.

He wrote, “All the recommendations on the area of intelligence in the 2001 GoM report were redacted in the report released to the public. Some information on the recommendations came through the press release accompanying the report. Other information came through scattered media reportage and an important article by the former deputy NSA in an annual publication of the NSCS. He further opined, “Intelligence agencies are loath to accept any oversight as it is. In addition, given the inexperience of Indian politicians with matters relating to security, there are worries that information could leak. However, given the fact there are several senior politicians who have served government in key ministries, it should not be too difficult to construct an oversight mechanism comprised of former members of, say, the CCS. In some measure, however, there is reluctance on the part of the government of the day on this issue because the Intelligence Bureau is involved in a great deal of domestic political espionage.”

Paradoxically, Joshi was a member of the Naresh Chandra Task Force on National Security constituted by the then UPA government. It submitted its report on August 8, 2012. The contents of that report have still not been made public by successive governments.

Contrast this with the American approach to 9/11 terror attack undoubtedly one of its biggest intelligence disasters. The 10-member bipartisan 9/11 Commission created by an act of Congress consisted exclusively of politicians. It analyzed and reported the tactical and institutional failures leading up to that terror outrage threadbare without any let or hindrance. The 585-page report put out in the public domain hardly has any or no redactions at all.  

In India there is an unnecessary and manufactured culture of secrecy enveloping our national security establishment. This is to enable them to obfuscate and escape scrutiny and accountability for their omissions. The argument that we live in a bad neighbourhood is at best specious.

Other democracies that are transparent about the functioning of their intelligence systems to their respective parliaments remain equally vulnerable.   

That is why I had moved a private member’s bill in 2011, entitled “The Intelligence Services (Powers and Regulation) Bill, 2011”, to put our intelligence agencies on a sound legal footing and provide for parliamentary oversight over their functioning. The bill lapsed in October 2012 when I moved to government.

The bill has been re-tabled in parliament with minor modifications and would have been moved in the Budget Session had it not adjourned prematurely due to Covid-19.

Coming to the latest China fiasco. It is high time that parliament by special legislation should create a 10-member commission of parliamentarians drawn from both houses on the lines of the 9/11 Commission to study the national security paradigm between 1999 and 2020 and make binding recommendations for the future.

Tags: india-china border dispute