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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: Jul 21, 2019, 6:55 AM; last updated: Jul 21, 2019, 11:13 AM (IST)

Global Intelligence gathering & India

Do our agencies measure up? And is going back to human Intelligence the answer to the opaque data-driven obsession?

Vappala Balachandran

Intelligence agencies were always lampooned by eminent persons throughout history as the repressive arm of the government. Franz Kafka’s 1915 novel The Trial is being quoted now to “democratise” the present “opaque, unaccountable and data driven” artificial intelligence (AI), which is expected to be the problem solver for information glut. George Orwell, who had raised the spectre of an oppressive state through his Animal Farm (1945), is now facing posthumous inquisition for being a British spy following declassification of a British Foreign Office file that he had revealed 38 Communist sympathisers.

Another criticism the agencies face is that these cause harm to national interests sporadically while executing their work. Former CIA director Robert Gates, who had closely worked with six US Presidents, quotes President Lyndon Johnson comparing the “Intelligence guys” with his cow Bessie: “You work hard and get a good policy going, and they swing a shit-smeared tail through it.” On July 18, an Indian columnist criticised our agencies during Chandrayaan-2 launch preparations that they gave “a further blow to India’s cryogenic dreams” through “the infamous ISRO spy case”, delaying the project by a decade.

On 19 May, 1991, the late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times to abolish the CIA. Calling the agency a “historical anachronism”, he advocated transfer of its functions to the State Department. He followed this up by introducing a Bill in January 1995. This looked odd as he was Vice-Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (1977-1985) and had even received the Agency’s “Seal Medallion” for “effective oversight” on Intelligence in 1986. A leading British academic claimed later that Moynihan’s attitude towards Intelligence and state secrecy were formulated from 1974 when he had occasion to watch CIA’s activities in India as US ambassador. He was provoked to write to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to “pull the CIA out of India” for being “a devastating liability”.

Moynihan later wrote a book Secrecy — the American Experience (Yale-1998) which I reviewed for a leading weekly in September 1999. Among the many cases he referred to were of American spies for Soviet Union like Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss and Theodore Alwin, who had taken advantage of the prosecution’s inability in presenting evidence in open courts for fear of revealing “operational secret details”. This indirectly weakened the cases against them. The same attitude prevented the US military from revealing, even to President Truman, the “crypto-analytical” evidence against 200 Americans contained in the Army Intelligence’s “Venona” files. In effect, Moynihan wanted his government to do only “Open Source Intelligence” (OSI) and not covert collection of information.

Would this simplistic solution work in modern days? We need to consider the humongous workload after 9/11. In 2007, the then US Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) that 16 US national Intelligence agencies collected one billion pieces of Intelligence a day. This included technical, human and “crypto-analytical” pointers which had to be analysed, rationalised and communicated to the enforcing agencies. A later estimate by The Atlantic Magazine revealed that US National Counter-Terrorist Centre (NCTC) alone received 8,000-10,000 counter-terrorist information and 10,000 names every day. Even with this, several attacks could not be prevented.

The HUMINT approach

Experience reveals that only human Intelligence (HUMINT) is the most dependable. Yet that is the most difficult. Allen Dulles, father of modern CIA, says that the first HUMINT operation recorded in The Bible was when The Lord asked Moses to use the tribes of Israel “to spy out the land of Canaan” to find their home. Simon Singh, in his fascinating history of secret writing and code breaking, quotes Herodotus on the conflicts between Greek states and Xerxes of Persia in the 5th century BC. Demaratus, a Greek merchant based in Persia, alerted his home country after seeing Persian war preparations by using his merchandise for secret writing while being exported home. Due to prior alert, the Greeks defeated the Persian Armada on 23 September, 480 BC in the Battle of Salamis. In England, the first “sting” operation, based on code breaking, was in 1586 when Queen Elizabeth’s spy master Francis Walsingham used infiltration operation into the circles of Mary, Queen of Scots, entrapping her in the Babington Plot which resulted in her execution.

Would we be able to do similar HUMINT operations in the modern times? We must admit that democracies have greater problems than closed societies. In September 2007, the NIS (South Korean Intelligence) achieved what countries like the US or Israel could not, by rescuing 21 of their Christian missionary hostages from the Afghan Taliban who had abducted them on July 19. Details of this six-week covert operation are still not very clear. Tragically, around the same period, India could do nothing to rescue our Border Road Organisation’s Maniappan or Telecommunication’s Suryanarayana who were abducted and killed by the Taliban. King of Spies by Blaine Harden, former Washington Post correspondent, gives us insights into how the foundations of the “effective” but bitterly controversial South Korean Intelligence organisation were laid by a 23-year-old US non-commissioned officer during American occupation from 1945.

The other book which has just come out is French journalist Roger Faligot’s Chinese Spies — From Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping, which is a “must read” for all those hoping that India would overtake China as a superpower by 2050. In 1919, their secret service was also born as a twin of their Communist party. Most of their top political leaders had done years of service in their secret service. Like in Soviet Union, their secret service had an all-pervading influence over their government organs, thereby facilitating their global ambitions through overt and covert means. No doubt, this type of scenario is not possible in a democracy like India. Still we could do something to improve the quality of human Intelligence. For that, we need to analyse our Intelligence history.

The Indian experience

Let me quote BN Mullik, father of independent India’s Intelligence (1950-1964) although he was the second Director of Intelligence Bureau. The late Sanjeevi was the first Indian Director. Much of our traditions and method of operations were laid down by Mullik. In his book My Years with Nehru —1948-1964, he writes about Nehru: “As the Prime Minister, he started with the suspicion that the Indian Intelligence was still dependent on the British… and was also dishing out Intelligence which the British continued to supply to it. Probably the fact that Intelligence was not directly under his control and so he could not guide its working also served to sustain this prejudice.” This was because the IB worked under Sardar Patel and not under the PM.

Unfortunately, Mullik was less than truthful. Nehru was absolutely correct in his suspicion. In 2009, historian Christopher Andrew, who was given unlimited access to MI-5’s secret archives, published The Defence of the Realm, the authorised history of MI-5, mentioning the secret arrangement between MI-5 and the Indian IB. This was formalised by Guy Liddell, MI-5’s Director, Counter-Espionage. “What was not made public, however, was that during a visit to India in March 1947, the DDG, Guy Liddel, obtained the agreement of the government of Jawaharlal Nehru for an MI-5 security liaison officer (SLO) to be stationed in New Delhi, after the end of British rule… In all, other newly independent Commonwealth countries, as in India, the continued presence of an SLO became a significant, though usually undisclosed, part of the transfer of power....”

Andrew did not know that Nehru was not supervising the IB’s work.

More secrets followed: “Liddell and Sanjeevi were united in their deep distrust of the first Indian High Commissioner in London, VK Krishna Menon, the Congress party’s leading Left-wing firebrand.” Andrew quotes Liddel telling his headquarters: “We were doing what we could to get rid of Krishna Menon.”

On 13 April, 2015, a leading Indian weekly published IB’s 1947 letter, causing sensation. For this, the blame came on Nehru. The letter dated 6 October, 1947, was from the late S Balakrishna Shetty, then Deputy Director to KM Bourne, MI-5‘s “Security Liaison Officer”, seeking “comments”. Enclosed was a censored letter from ACN Nambiar, a close associate of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, to Amiya Nath Bose, nephew of Netaji Bose. The IB ignored that India was an independent country, that Subhas Chandra Bose was our national leader, and that India should not follow Britain’s Intelligence priorities. The same obeisant attitude was exhibited in the Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum incident in April 2018 by the NDA government.

For improving our HUMINT, which only will enable us to leap as a superpower, we have to get away from the present “Law & Order and Crime approach” in external Intelligence staffing and priorities. We should also move away from Embassy sanctuaries by venturing into the risky “Non-Official Covers” (NOC). Unfortunately, this flexibility in our external agency’s operations, which was evident from the initial years to the early 2000s, had reverted to the hierarchical, bureaucratic, rotational, and risk averse pattern, which was evident from the later years of UPA-1 & 2 and is continuing under the NDA regime too.

— The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

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