India’s intelligence community has evolved through a unique process that is grounded in the West, but also learned from the East. During the Cold War, India had to balance a bipolar world, and Indian intelligence proved to be the conduit for many relations that had to be kept away from the public gaze.

As we saw in the first part of this series, India had mixed success on international intelligence cooperation. In the second part of the series, we looked at how intelligence cooperation in South Asia was critical to India’s security and strategic requirements. In this third and final part we look at the tenures of chiefs and their access to the political leadership, which play a crucial role in the success of intelligence operations.

Improving international intelligence cooperation

In the past, chiefs of both intelligence agencies in India, B N Mullick in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and R N Kao in the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), had very long tenures, the former an uninterrupted span of 16 years and the latter 13 years, in two incarnations (chief and security adviser to the prime minister). This gave them unprecedented stature and access (both Mullick and Kao could walk in and meet the prime minister – Jawaharlal Nehru first, and Indira Gandhi later – almost on a daily basis). It also enabled them to have formidable personal equations with heads of foreign intelligence organizations, who knew of their clout and respected them for it.

In subsequent years, this type of leadership or long tenure has not been possible in India’s intelligence agencies. Now there is a fixed two-year tenure, which in practice leads to dilution of merit and succession by personnel of indifferent calibers. It has also prevented development of personalized rapport with the heads of foreign agencies.

The evolution of the concept of a national security adviser (NSA), apart from restricting access to the top political leadership, has had an impact on international liaison relationships. Of the five NSAs in India so far, three have been former diplomats and two former intelligence chiefs. Approaches to strategic and tactical aspects of intelligence input management have been vastly different with respective incumbents, inhibiting development of institutionalized or seamless cooperation with foreign agencies.

With the appointment of the national-security “czars” in foreign countries, too, the level of cooperation may have gone up but not necessarily the quality thereof.

Another problem noticed in intelligence sharing is the proclivity of some agencies to play “honest broker” between hostile neighboring countries with both of which they have liaison arrangements. They often get carried away seeking a larger-than-life mediatory or “peacenik” role on contentious issues. When this “double role” gets exposed and is not always kindly received.

Though some countries have advanced technical and SIGINT (signals intelligence) access into activities of militants operating across borders from inside one country, they often share these inputs halfheartedly or partially, for fear of compromising their assets. This has prevented appropriate analysis and timely dissemination to ground authorities for taking up remedial security measures.

Often, sharing of tactical SIGINT data resulted in disappearance of the detected links, probably due to corrective action by hostile intelligence agencies. What is needed here is honest disclosure of access, whether technical or HUMINT (human intelligence), as also a system to assess the reliability of inputs being shared.

Hotlines exist for sharing of important, time-bound inputs pertaining to terror modules being hatched in third countries, but these inputs are often disseminated in a hurry, without proper analysis or collation, for fear of being upstaged by rival domestic agencies, which also have access to the same input from the foreign organization. Though rules are laid down on which will be the nodal agency for foreign intelligence liaison, these are ignored by competing agencies racing to gain kudos from political masters.

These glitches need to be sorted out in good liaison relationships. Often these depend on close personal rapport at the leadership level, which requires time, suave sangfroid and mental alacrity for the chemistry to light up.

Conclusion

India has attempted to cope with the threat from terrorism through a combination of counter-terror and counterterrorism policies. The former is tackled through effective policing, timely and better coordinated intelligence and physical security. The latter approach looks at other dimensions in a more holistic manner – seeking to address political, socio-economic, ethnic, sectarian, religious or separatist issues at the level of civil society interaction, combining state and civil-society correctives.

Finding out the sources of foreign funding of terrorist outfits and choking these flows of “hawala” money, for instance, can go a long way in curbing their effectiveness. The role of international bodies like the United Nations’ Financial Action Task Force (FATF) can be very important in this context.

Intelligence liaison with friendly foreign agencies can help, depending on what regional interests or priorities condition their responses of the moment. In the ultimate analysis, though, India will have to find its own answers to combat and counter terror.

(This is the final article of a three-part series on Indian intelligence and its cooperation with its external counterparts. The author served in India’s intelligence community for 28 years.)