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Dad's army versus terror Flop tag on tech trackers

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BHAVNA VIJ-AURORA   |   Delhi   |   Published 30.07.08, 12:00 AM

New Delhi, July 30: The National Technical Research Organisation, an ambitious initiative to use technology to watch terror groups and pre-empt strikes, has turned into a pensioners’ club.

Nearly a dozen retired officials hold key positions in the organisation set up in 2004 to monitor phone calls and emails, track the flow of funds on the Internet, and be the repository of the country’s technical intelligence assets, including spy planes and satellites.

The idea was it would keep an eye on terror groups and Left-wing extremists and prevent Kargil-like intrusions.

The NTRO, which counts national security adviser M.K. Narayanan among its enthusiastic backers, should have been just the organisation to help prevent the serial blasts and the Line of Control violation in Kashmir.

Instead, it is facing calls for closure. “The NTRO experiment has been a failure, the government should wind it up,” an official who was part of the organisation said.

At least three officials, heading crucial units, have recently opted for repatriation to their parent organisations complaining of “suffocating and unprofessional working conditions”.

“Last year, too, six officials holding key positions had withdrawn from the organisation. With so many superannuated people coming in, the NTRO is becoming more like a pensioners’ club than the professional intelligence outfit it is meant to be. A critical post of cyber applications and research is yet to be filled,” a top government source said.

Former IPS officers and former Intelligence Bureau and RAW sleuths now people the NTRO. “There are some scientists too. In fact, the biggest grouse outgoing officials have is that it is headed by a scientist, K.V.S.S. Prasad Rao,” an official said.

Rao took over in 2005 after retiring from the Defence Research and Development Organisation, where he was responsible for missiles and strategic systems.

The NTRO “should have been able to monitor phone calls and trace emails. The organisation was envisaged as an expert in cyber security and tracking global satellite mobile (GSM) systems as also high-frequency (HF) communications”, said the official who has worked there.

“We have money, resources and technology but we don’t have the vision and the will to create an effective intelligence sharing mechanism.”

The NTRO, set up on the recommendation of the Kargil Review Committee as a nodal agency for technical intelligence along the lines of the US National Security Agency, reports to the national security adviser. Part of the cabinet secretariat, like external spy agency RAW, it has an annual budget of Rs 700 crore.

Its problem, sources said, is lack of initiative.As a member of the Kargil Review Committee’s technical task force on intelligence, M.K. Narayanan was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the idea of a technical intelligence organisation. Today, he seems either unwilling to or unable to get the agency off the ground,” the official said.

Some of the responsibilities handed to the NTRO were earlier being performed by RAW, including air surveillance by its Aviation Research Centre. “RAW has been stonewalling attempts to let go of the ARC, which also snoops on nuclear tests and missile launches in the neighbourhood… So, the government now receives airborne intelligence from RAW and satellite imagery from the NTRO, going against the very logic of having a single agency for technical intelligence,” said the senior government officer.

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