‘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 is inadequate intelligence, the failure to connect the dots within the system and then the rest just happened as the world saw on TV.
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.
It is unfortunate that for a country like ours that has had to deal with insurgencies and unending terrorism for sixty years, the political leadership and a civil bureaucracy has viewed the business of intelligence collection with disdain. Efforts to 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 between the two stages. Unless leaders equip themselves with a strong intelligence arm, they will continue to be surprised and making wrong choices.
In understanding the role of external intelligence we must first accept 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.
Secondly, 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 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.
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.
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 the 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.