Monday, 30th October 2017

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Wannabe agents minus intelligence

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  • Published 24.02.11

New Delhi, Feb. 23: A candidate appearing before an interview board for a job with a desperately short-staffed intelligence agency identified Hyderabad, not Bangalore, as the capital of Karnataka.

Another candidate, asked about his opinion on the situation in Kashmir and what role cross-border infiltration played, was so nervous that he could barely stutter a reply.

A “tail-end” syndrome is plaguing India’s intelligence services that are attracting only those who are at the bottom of the pile in the civil services exams conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, a study by two think tanks, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) and the Observer Research Foundation, has found.

In the shadowy world of espionage, the methods of functioning are rarely publicised. But the report by the IDSA and the ORF casts light on glaring communication gaps and deficiencies in and among the agencies. The outfits are hampered not only by the poor quality of staff but also by an absence of scientists and technologists who can deal with modern snooping equipment confidently.

Findings of the report were presented here today to a gathering of retired and serving intelligence officers and a prominent politician who often speaks for the Congress. Senior intelligence operatives are now saying there is a case for a direct recruitment system so that they are able to attract better talent to become agents, just like the UK’s MI-5 has done.

A retired bureaucrat who is often invited to interview prospective candidates said: “We are sent a list of candidates who are basically rejects of the other services. They either do not have it in them (to make the grade) or are overawed by the interview board and the questions or just do not turn up even after being appointed.”

The upshot is that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the cabinet secretariat, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the National Security Council Secretariat, the National Technical Research Organisation — in fact, the entire alphabet soup of intelligence agencies run by the Centre — including the Military Intelligence and the Defence Intelligence Agency are unable to fill crucial posts.

The report, only parts of which were presented by the research team led by a retired IAS officer who served with the cabinet secretariat, urges the government to consider a drastic overhaul of the intelligence gathering, analysis and sharing mechanism.

In a marked departure from Union home minister P. Chidambaram’s proposal to make a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) an overarching intelligence outfit, the report treats the suggested centre as just one among several.

It says the government should review the role of the national security advisor (NSA). The NSA has in effect become the “chief diplomatic adviser” to the Prime Minister.

The report recommends that the government study the creation of a new portfolio in the cabinet — a minister for security because of the way the NSA’s role has evolved.

It recommends that a National Intelligence Co-ordinator reporting to the NSA should become the nodal office through which all intelligence agencies interact. During their study, the researchers said they found that the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the National Security Council Secretariat — which were merged and then separated — often overlapped.

The researchers found that even in Indian embassies, high commissions and consulates abroad, there was a disconnect between the heads of missions and the intelligence operatives. “It is all right if heads of missions want to know about developments but operatives feel uncomfortable about liaising because they are asked questions on operational issues (such as sources and informants),” one researcher said.

The researchers found that though RAW — the agency for gathering external intelligence — has 21 senior posts (of the rank of joint secretary and above) from the cabinet committee on appointments for officers from the armed forces, it was making do with only 13. The army, navy and the air force were unwilling to spare their resources, citing a shortage of officers.

The study found that while most operatives wanted to be intelligence-gatherers — because that is the “glamour job” — there was a reluctance to be analysts. Agents were not familiar with the language and the area they were assigned to.

“It may so often be that a man in China does not know Chinese, another in Russia may not know Russian and another in the Middle East will not know Arabic or Persian but the guy in Washington will know English,” the researcher scoffed.