Making India’s Intelligence Accountable
The seemingly indissoluble encryption debate and the spectre of a comeback of pesky mass surveillance Betaal, the untameable all-knowing mythological celestial spirit, has rekindled the question of accountability of Intelligence. All instruments of democratic governance should be accountable to people is a truism. Intelligence, the inalienable device of government, should not remain immune from such requirements. Intelligence, one of the oldest professions, has navigated humanity through a variety of threats since the dawn of organized society on Earth. Its resilience against morphing strategic objectives and tactical advancements is testimony to its indispensability. Therefore, any deontological prescription for accountability should factor in the realism of utility, functioning, operating values, and future trajectory of Intelligence.
The enigma surrounding Intelligence, and spying -its operative arm, is baffling. There is no shared perception of Intelligence. Adventure enthusiasts see Intelligence in the escapades of James Bond, quixotic romanticize it as cloak and dagger operation, liberals demonize it as stalking of Big Brother, dystopian view it as a handiwork of exalted reprobates, and cops visualize it as an instrument to catch fugitives. Varied perceptions about Intelligence by different groups miss the gestalt. The longevity of the profession denotes that the fundamental objective of the vocation is somewhat sublime.
The avowed intent of Intelligence is to defend the sovereign. The definition of the sovereign could denote different entities depending on the prevailing system of governance. It would mean the ruler or kingdom in a monarchy or the people in a democracy. That the people are sovereign in democracy is axiomatic. It is the people who give unto themselves a set of principles to be governed, the Constitution. Protection of the Constitution is the mandate of Intelligence agencies in India.
The oldest reference about Intelligence is in Atharvaveda (1000-900 BCE), about King Varuna employing “his thousand eyes’ (stars) looking over the Earth beneath” (Book 4, Hymn XVI.4). “Jagratam Aharnisham” (Always Awake), the motto of the Intelligence Bureau, resonates with the Hymn. Varuna also ensures freedom from fear and worries of daily life, such as crime and disease.
Kautilya had advised that “The king should …… keep a watchful eye employing spies to bring about security and well-being, ………(Arthashartra, Book 1, Chapter 7). Joshua fulfilled God’s command of establishing Israelites, after releasing them from enslavement, in the “Promised Land” with the help of spies and a harlot. In the Siyāsat-nāma, Nizam al-Mulk highlights that “the good ruler has not a mere possibility, but rather a real duty, to gather intelligence about the conditions of the army and the peasantry…….” (Stefano Musco). Intelligence historian, Christopher Andrews, has held that “Athens’ failure to ‘spy out’ Sparta ……..contributed to, even if it did not cause, the ultimate defeat of Athenian democracy in the Peloponnesian war” (Secret World pp 33). The United Kingdom National Risk Register has identified Pandemic Influenza as a high probability-high impact risk to National Security. These historical events and assessments underscore the role of Intelligence as a defender of the realm and welfare of people.
Defence of the sovereign is a function of comprehension of threats for effective counteraction. Unravelling the mystery of founts of dangers is a daunting task for intelligence operatives. These agents “exercise sovereign power like rays of light to the human soul (Thomas Hobbs)” exploring the abyss of deliberately hidden and inaccessible facts to clear the fog of ignorance amidst perpetual scarcity of information to improve the quality of decision making. These intelligence operatives adopt cultures alien to their own, infiltrate criminal organizations, and undertake psychologically disruptive steps to ensure the safety and security of fellow citizens. Intelligence operatives are moral agents who voluntarily sacrifice all libertarian concepts to provide the public good. Intelligence Services (Restriction of Rights) Act, 1985, the only law governing Indian Intelligence, curtails some Fundamental Rights of practitioners of Intelligence. The high commitment of these individuals is evident in their dedication, despite being aware that they have no legal protection.
The cultural mores deeply influence the principle of intelligence practice. Emphasis on “conflict resolution” by the Intelligence Bureau in solving internal strife echoes with the Kautilya principles (Book IX.5) and teachings in Mahabharat (Anushasan Parva, CXXIV) on the importance of conciliation as a dispute resolution mechanism. The cultural underpinning helped the Intelligence Bureau, the only agency at the time of independence, not to model itself on Statsi, Gestapo, or Mossad, despite the newborn nation facing destabilizing events in terms of the worst human migration, state-sponsored aggression, communal upsurge, and assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Mossad, the foreign intelligence wing of Israel, had adopted the motto “By way of deception, thou shalt conduct war” (Hebrew Bible: Proverb 24:6); the axiom has been subsequently modified to conciliation, “Where no counsel is, the people fall, but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverb 11;14). Shin Bet, the internal intelligence agency of Israel, draws inspiration from Psalm 121, “He who watches over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” (Secret World pp 18)
Disentangling the complex interplay of threats is the first step in protecting the sovereign. Kautilya has identified internal, extremal, internally abetted external, and externally encouraged internal threats to the sovereign. Of these, the internal threat is the most lethal. Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and ‘Et Tu Brute?” moments on the fateful Ides of March 44 BCE when Julius Caesar was stabbed by his senators on the eve of his departure for a conquest highlight the peril of internal danger. While God resurrected, Rome plunged into a civil war that lasted for two decades. Sir Basil Thomson, the then Chief of Scotland Yard, in the 1918 memo to King George V, had highlighted the requirement of monitoring threats from internal sources.
The devastating potential of internal dangers warrants a nuanced discussion on the vilified concept of surveillance. While there is near unanimity on the non-replaceability of Intelligence and its operational arm, surveillance, in mitigating threats emanating from external sources, the Orwellian phantom rises when applied to neutralize internal threats.
Intrusive surveillance is an accepted threat mitigator recognized in millennia-old profession and cosmic order.
Atharvaveda highlights the importance of “mass surveillance,”
“What two men whisper as they sit together, King Varuna knows; he as the third present” (Book 4, Hymn XVI.2).
Sage Thiruvalluvar has ordained spies to watch over even relatives,
“Vinaiseyvaar Thamsutram Ventaadhaar Endraangu Anaivaraiyum Aaraaivadhu Otru.” (Holy Kural 584) –
“He is a spy who watches all men, to wit, those who are in the king’s employment, his relatives, and his enemies.”
BN Mullik, the doyen of Indian Intelligence who led Intelligence Bureau in its formative years, had recounted, in his memoir My Days with Nehru 1948-1964, the change in perception of Pandit Nehru towards intensive surveillance over Indian citizens when the officer showed him the evidence of a government officer spying for a foreign country; Nehru authorized the creation of a counter-intelligence unit. (Chapter 10, Counter Intelligence)
The ghost of surveillance created by the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four written by George Orwell, the progenitor of the phrase Cold war, could be seen in the context of the time it was written. The book was set in the era when democracies, including India, had marshalled their intelligence agencies to thwart communist (read Stalinist) influence in their countries. The narrative gives an impression of psychological operation (psyops) against alleged draconian methods of Communism. Orwell’s communication of a list of nearly 40 academicians, journalists, and “Fellow Travelers” sympathetic to the communist cause, advising the Information Research Department, a secret propaganda unit of British Foreign Office, not to hire them could be construed as his non-aversion to close monitoring. However, the salutary Orwellian message on the possible misuse of surveillance is worth taking cognizance of.
The ‘Orwell’ could have a significant impact on evaluation of threats. The interaction of internal and external hazards has changed from segregated complementarity to amalgamated reciprocity to align with strategic objectives. In the era of attrition of resources and annexation being strategic objectives, internal threats emanated from individual spies aiding the rival army by providing details of tactical hardware and plans. Nuclear weapons caused the change in strategic objective to deterrence and containment. Stealing details of technological advancements were added to the espionage repertoire in this stage. This requirement changed the source of internal threat from an informer to that of a saboteur who could prevent the acquisition of matching capability. In these, both internal and external sources of threats maintained their independent status while complementing each other.
The unbounded hegemonic tendencies circumvented containment approach with adoption of attrition of will as the strategic objective. Insurgency, a political drive, became a tactical weapon in place of kinetic force. This modification in the strategy called for a change in the internal-external threat relationship to amalgamated reciprocity that obliterated the distinction between sources of menace. The insurgencies in Kashmir and Punjab are the attempts of hegemonic forces to cause attrition of will.
Attrition of will strategy is moving towards the destructive objective of implosion through cognitive manipulation of masses. The goal is sought to be achieved by direct meddling in the political affairs of the targeted country. Russian influence in the 2016 US Presidential elections was a successful attempt of causing implosion. The attempts to influence political movements in India by outside forces could have a dimension of the use of psychological (non-kinetic) support to achieve the strategic objective of implosion harnessing amalgamated reciprocity between the external and internal forces.
Intelligence principles are getting modified due to changes in strategic objectives. Until and during the Cold War, Intelligence had secret characters practiced through the doctrine of “need to know ” and shared with policymakers. Implementation of insurgency as a tactical weapon changed the philosophy to “need to share” with those responsible for mitigating threats on the ground. The strategy of cognitive manipulation of masses would call for making the public aware of the dangers and proposed efforts to tackle them, heralding the era of “public intelligence” in contrast to the “secret intelligence” of yore. The enunciation of security policy would become a staple dissemination package that would make people aware of intelligence efforts to provide security.
Public Intelligence would be the harbinger of transparency. It would also require an attitudinal change in consumers who must learn to accept Intelligence as an integral part of their life. “The change would depend on ‘Orwell,’ synonymous with the fear of Intelligence, loosening grip on people’s imagination. However, this changed perception does not preclude having healthy fear for abuse of power without developing automatic distrust for Intelligence and recognizing it as important statecraft”. (Learning to live with Intelligence; Wesley K. Wark)
Media, the eternal watchdog of human freedom, should have more rigorous standards to ensure the credibility and reliability of information catered. The use of probabilistic phrases, “notional loss” and “probable list” in a deterministic sense would mar the benefit of public Intelligence. The media should always be careful about protecting the identity of sources, even if it is a deliberate leak. Such revelations cause grievous violations of human rights. Sten Lindstrom, the whistle blower in Bofors case, expressed his anguish in an interview (The Hoot, April 24, 2012) with Chitra Subramaniam-Duella, that his name was leaked in the Indian political circle that caused a lot of stress and had consequences for his family. Lindstrom further lamented that the beneficiary media unit, The Hindu, remained unconcerned. Leakages of identity could have fatal consequences for the agents.
The accountability mechanism can then be based on a dialogical paradigm. A comprehensive accountability system should have laws to protect human sources, their operations, including authorized surveillance. The operational responsibility should rest with the head of the Intelligence organization. Revealing information about operatives should be made a criminal offense.
Law could create an institution of Human Rights Monitor within the structure of the National Security Council Secretariat to work as a watchdog reviewing the targets of Intelligence operations regularly. Such monitors may be from the Judiciary enjoying the rank of Deputy National Security Advisor.
An Inspector General of the rank of Deputy National Security Advisor in the Secretariat would review the course of Intelligence operations, without going into target details, to ensure that activity has not diverted from avowed objective and mission from the human rights perspective. The Inspector General should have proven capacity and experience in intelligence operations.
A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Intelligence should set the range of activities undertaken as long-term and short-term pursuits based on an assessment of the strategic environment and internal threats. The Committee may review the work carried out and seek inputs from Human Rights Monitor and Inspector General. The Committee shall hold in-camera meetings and would not seek details of human assets deployed in operations. The Committee would make public its review of activities about human rights aspects but send recommendations on operations to the government only. Members of the Committee may not enjoy immunity from laws governing intelligence operations and The Official Secrets Act.
The success of accountability would depend on understanding the process of Intelligence and diminution of “Orwell” from the collective psyche. The incorporation of Intelligence in the nation’s historiography would help understand the role of Intelligence.
Balancing security and privacy is a delicate task in democracy. On the dilemma, Barack Obama had observed (South at South Bay Interactive, Austin, Texas, March 11, 2016), “I anguish a lot over the decisions we make in terms of how to keep this country safe, and I am not interested in overthrowing the values that have made us an exceptional and great nation simply for expediency. But the dangers are real. Maintaining law and order and a civilized society is important……. And so I would just caution against taking an absolutist perspective on this.” He further adds, “Because what will happen is if everybody goes to their respective corners and the tech community says, you know what, either we have strong, perfect encryption, or else it’s Big Brother and an Orwellian world — what you’ll find is that after something really bad happens, the politics of this will swing and it will become sloppy and rushed, and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through. And then you really will have dangers to our civil liberties because we will have not done — the people who understand this best and who care most about privacy and civil liberties have sort of disengaged or taken a position that is not sustainable for the general public as a whole over time.”
Obama’s warning is pithy. Maximalist positions and knee-jerk reactions cannot resolve the accountability of Intelligence.
Let us not attempt to secure the door of the house after removing the walls.
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