Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Dao of Strategic Assessment (7): The Importance of Intelligence Gathering

Assessing intelligence is one challenge. Gathering intelligence is another challenge. ...

Why is intelligence gathering important?
"One who confronts his enemy for many years in order to struggle for victory in a decisive battle yet who, because he begrudges rank, honours and a few hundred pieces of gold, remains ignorant of his enemy's situation, is completely devoid of humanity. Such a man is no general; no support to his sovereign; no master of victory. " - Sunzi (Griffith translation)

Of all those in the army close to the commander none is more intimate than the secret agent; of all rewards none more liberal than those given to the secret agents; of all matters none more confidential than those relating to secret operations. ... He who is not sage and wise, humane and just, cannot use secret agents. And he who is not delicate and subtle cannot get the truth out of them. ... Delicate indeed! Truly delicate! There is no place where espionage is not used.
- Sunzi (Griffith translation)

What is the Benefit of Gathering Intelligence?
Of old, the rise of Yin was due to I Chih, who formerly served the Hsia; the Chou came to power through Lu Yu, a servant of the Yin. ... And therefore only the enlightened sovereign and the worthy general who are able to use the most intelligent people as agents are certain to achieve great things. Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move.
- Sunzi
(Griffith translation)

# # #

A spy’s lament

By Vikram Sood
Tuesday, 03 February , 2009, 18:18

Vikram Sood was Secretary, Research and Analysis Wing and is currently Adviser to the Chairman, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

‘Nothing should be as favourably regarded as intelligence; nothing should be as generously rewarded as intelligence; nothing should be as confidential as the work of intelligence.’ - Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It is possible that had the state paid any attention to Sun Tzu’s principles, our systems might have been better equipped to handle events that led to and occurred on 26/11.

In India we have violated all these principles, more or less consistently but especially in these last few years, since after the time of Rajiv Gandhi. In the aftermath of the Mumbai massacres, and even before that, throughout 2008 questions about intelligence failures have been raised after each major terrorist act.

However, Mumbai was more than just intelligence failure. Like Kargil, it was also a systemic failure. But the starting point was inadequate intelligence, the failure to connect the dots within the system. The rest just happened, as the world saw on TV.

It is unfortunate that for a country like ours that has had to deal with insurgencies and unending terrorism for 60 years, the political leadership and a civil bureaucracy has viewed the business of intelligence collection with disdain. Efforts at control have usually meant putting roadblocks and reducing intelligence functions to bureaucratic practices.

Any state that seriously wants to preserve or enhance its national interests needs statecraft that is a mixture of diplomacy, intelligence, military technology and economic power. No single instrument is powerful enough in the pursuit of national interests and all instruments have to be sharp and powerful but intelligence is an important function at all times, peace or war or in between.

Unless leaders equip themselves with a strong intelligence arm, they will continue to be surprised and make wrong choices.

In understanding the role of external intelligence we must first accept a few basic truths.

Even the best intelligence will not be a guarantee against all terrorist attacks or other nasty surprises but it will make the price higher, will be a deterrent and of immense help in investigations, instead of what happens at present where the investigating agencies are blindsided.

Second, intelligence is not just by the IB or R&AW or DIA; in case of terrorism it is the local state units in the district and the sub-division that have to perform.

Third, since external intelligence operates on foreign soil, it is an extra-legal or even illegal activity. That is why governments need the cover of plausible deniability since relations between sovereign powers could get adversely affected or even ruptured because of clandestine activities.

That is also why preserving an intelligence operative’s identity becomes vital but is often not understood. It is not a quirk of personality or a desire for mystery that makes an intelligence operative uncomfortable when he is exposed, as so often happens in India. In fact, the best intelligence operatives are those who have a passion for anonymity, although in the Indian system this is impossible.

Further, intelligence is often an amalgam of information and data from various sources — technical of various kinds and human sources — all of which is converted into knowledge by skilled analysts. But all this is not enough because intelligence is as good as the process that converts this information into knowledge and the ability of the ultimate user to assimilate this intelligence.

Intelligence is generally considered evil because it is secret, therefore it must be controlled by transients who are either biased or ignorant about the methods and needs. There is therefore an absurd expectation among some wise people that intelligence agencies and their methods should be made transparent.

At the other end of the spectrum is the declining professionalism among agencies where they have been resorting to leaks to protect themselves. Presumably in an atmosphere of uncertainty and a highly politicised bureaucracy, this is another way to save one’s gaddi — when sycophancy ceases to work.

There are other things that are wrong today within the agencies. The first aspect is to consider whether the present system of recruitment and manning of the intelligence organisations is the best that is possible, given the present nature and level of threats.

National threats have changed. There are other transnational threats that no single agency or a single country can handle. Besides, there is no knowing how new threats will evolve. The rapidly changing technological applications bring their own threats.

Catastrophic terrorism, cyber terrorism, remote control missile attacks and virtual wars are the other new threats. International trade and commercial transactions have become faster and more intricate; banking transactions move at the speed of lightning.

The IT-driven globalisation also covers the criminal world. Interaction between narcotics smugglers, arms merchants, human traffickers and terrorists is that much easier, faster and safer. They all have access to sophisticated denial and deception techniques. Add to this, radical religious terrorists who are affecting India most dramatically and are supported by Pakistan in every way. The normal civil servant, however bright just does not have these skills or the aptitude.

Within organisations there has been an increasingly greater reliance on techint (technical intelligence) in preference to humint (human intelligence) capabilities. No amount of techint is a substitute for an intelligence operative or an astute and experienced analyst. The best techint is of little use if this is not preceded or accompanied by effective and sound humint capacities. Techint will give facts but not intentions and particularly in the case of counter terrorism, humint is an absolute must.

Intelligence collection and operations are increasingly becoming highly specialised skills. This is not something that can be handled by men and women who seek to join an intelligence agency as a temporary haven or as an opportunity to treat the organisation as a secondary foreign office with no commitment to the profession. These are jobs meant for professionals committed for a lifetime, who acquire their skills in tradecraft, languages, areas and issues over a long period of time.

Besides, relatively small organisations like the R&AW cannot have a revolving door where officers enter and exit every few years. The R&AW is the only major external intelligence organisation in the world that has a fixed quota for seconded officers to man its clandestine and analysis desks. In an era of specialisation, this means that these very skills are lacking; so is the commitment.

This means a loss of talent every few years, apart from other drawbacks. Once an officer walks away with operational secrets, he can be vulnerable.

The R&AW was not conceived as a central police organisation. It was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the organisation’s founding fathers, Rameshwar Nath Kao and Sankaran Nair, who repeatedly stressed that the R&AW should not become just another police organisation, and should draw talent from wherever they could find, including other services of the Government of India.

Recruitment to what would be a new service began in 1971 and many other lateral entrants later got absorbed in a service that became their new life. It was during the watch of Gary Saxena that the service rules were formalised; later other lateral entries were possible.

The underlying principle of this was intelligence collection, and operations were not assumed to be the preserve of any particular service. But unfortunately the Indian Police Service still assumes it should have primacy in the R&AW, and the result has been a constant and a debilitating battle between the in-house service and the IPS.

Apart from calamities like Morarji Desai that befell R&AW in the ninth year of its existence, the organisation has been subjected to periodic attempts at reforms which have been little better than merely reorganising quotas among various services or creating more promotional avenues.

These reviews and committees have attempted to exercise external control and succeeded in creating only road blocks. This has only meant increasing bureaucratisation of a profession which by nature has to be unconventional, and needs imaginative and flexible handling far away from stodgy bureaucrats who feel at home only in carefully structured and rigid systems. For this mindset, the process and not the result, is an end in itself.

Drawing the right talent has been an increasing challenge in the government. It is more so in the R&AW. The UPSC route may have been the more transparent, but it now seems increasingly unimaginative and irrelevant to the needs.

This is not to overlook that the IPS has contributed some truly outstanding intelligence officers, but these officers would have been outstanding anywhere. It is just that the requirements have changed today.

Besides, an exam passed five, ten or twenty years ago does not qualify a man or a woman as an intelligence officer. The former Naval Chief Admiral Arun Prakash highlighted the kind of problem that exists in his recent article “The clear and present danger from 6th CPC.”

He pointed out the difficulties R&AW had in accommodating Naval officers on secondment because of the equivalences laid down by “the Kafkaesque Department of Personnel.”

This comment underscores the problem of manning that afflicts both the intelligence agencies and the armed forces because as with the Navy, so with the Army and Air Force.

There are other problems in a world where threat perceptions are changing rapidly and where the terrorist is invariably a step or two ahead of the counter-terrorist. There is a need to break out of the hierarchical system introduced in intelligence agencies where promotions within the organisations must lag behind the superior service, the IAS.

Since personnel of intelligence agencies seek promotion within their own agencies there is need to change the nomenclature of their ranks, to break free from the system of equivalence with the hierarchy, and strike out on one’s own. The same principle could apply to the armed forces, who do not have to be bound down by archaic principles of equivalence. They can still be answerable to the civil authority of the government.

The regular UPSC recruit, however bright, will not suffice. The brightest no longer join the civil services. And an intelligence agency needs language skills, in-depth knowledge about the target country and its cultural mores, computer whiz kids, technology experts, military men, financial experts and bankers who can help trace the financial trails of the terrorist, as well as the ability to link the terrorist with the arms and drug smuggler.

It needs economists, scientists, area experts, political analysts, university dons, journalists and those with skills similar to those of Connie Sachs in John le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

Ideally, therefore, an external intelligence agency should be able to pay its personnel well but be able to hire and fire non-performers. It cannot afford to carry disgruntled men and women in its ranks. Promotions throughout will have to be performance-based, and not linked to seniority. There has to be a fasttrack for those who excel. Since everybody cannot climb the ladder and there has to be some sidelining of even the bright ones, it is best for the government to consider the system of flexible pay bands so that officers can at least hope to end up with a better pay packet at the end of the day.

This means having to break out of the iron cage of bureaucracy. It also means recruiting in the open market from colleges and universities as all the well known agencies of the world like the CIA, the SIS and the Mossad do. 'Catch them young and then mould them' is the motto.

In the present system, the man joins an organisation when he may be in his mid-twenties or if he is seconded, even much later. Most have got accustomed to the frills of bureaucracy, are married and have children. They are just too rigid to learn anything new and too old to take any risks or gamble, so essential for an intelligence operative.

It is of course unrealistic to expect any banker or finance wizard to give up his fancy job and work for a still lowly paid government assignment.

The CIA, faced with budget cuts in the Clinton era, got over this problem by outsourcing which has now become an intelligence-industrial Complex rather like the military-industrial Complex that has typified US capitalism. It is estimated that today, outsourcing is a 50 billion dollar business annually and consumes about 70 percent of the budget of the US intelligence community and this includes those working on covert operations.

The CIA, the National Security Agency and the Pentagon now have partnership arrangements with giants like Lockheed Martin, IBM, CACI and Booz Allen Hamilton.

This may not be the model for India to follow but there is no way that there can be any effective functioning of intelligence agencies in the future without some involvement and reliance on the private sector. This involvement is going to be inevitable and necessary chiefly because it could be in the interest of the private sector to be participatory in the security of the country and it has the means and the resources to do so. The private sector could provide the technological inputs in battling terror.

In a fast changing world with a rapidly changing threat perception, intelligence agencies have not been nor allowed to be flexible to meet the evolving threat. There is hardly any surge capability where the agency can, on its own, shift manpower and resources to meet the new threat.

The present system is far too cumbersome and slow to allow any rapid redeployment and by the time the new system is put into place the quarry has moved on, either morphed into something different or has just become too big so that the changes originally proposed become inadequate. The head of an intelligence organisation must have the flexibility and authority to move men and material around.

None of these freedoms would be available without checks and balances and accountability or oversight. We are perhaps not yet ready, as a people, to have the US system but the British system is better for us where accountability is to the Cabinet.

A great deal would depend on the prime minister who needs to choose his chiefs of intelligence with great care. Past experience, career performance and integrity should be the main guiding factors and not seniority.

All this is meaningless unless there is a systemic overhaul. Both Mumbai and Kargil were as much systemic failures, yet the target always is the intelligence system.

Mumbai occurred because the lessons of Kargil were not adequately learnt. Intelligence reforms without police reforms are pointless because the local policeman develops the strategic intelligence given by the central agencies. Police reforms without civil service reform are equally meaningless. And civil service reform without political reform is similarly meaningless.

Given the needs of the hour, the threats that we face and will continue to face in the future, the country can no longer afford to have nothing but the best.

The views expressed in the column are the author’s and not of

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