Event ReportsPublished on Aug 20, 2018
Intelligence challenges India face are becoming more IT-based

Union Minister of Textiles Smriti Irani on 13 August launched the interesting and knowledgeable book on India’s external intelligence gathering, The Unending Game, by former Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief Vikram Sood.

The launch was followed by a panel discussion chaired by Mr. Baijayant Panda, which involved ORF Chairman Sunjoy Joshi, former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal and author Sood, an Advisor at ORF.

The book deals primarily with external intelligence and its role in policy and decision-making in modern twentieth century states. It provides a sober analysis of the methods applied and the challenges involved in the activities of nations and their intelligence communities. In the author’s own words, it was an attempt to dispel common perceptions about intelligence and to put it into perspective.

The discussion revolved around the situation of intelligence within a wider political context, focusing on issues of accountability and oversight, as well as the challenges posed in the new security environment that are increasingly defined by new forms of information technology and exchange.

The nature of intelligence is that it is pre-emptive. It is imperative that India’s political leadership, due to the nature and scale of the threats the country faces, along with its attempts to emerge as a ‘great power’, receives realistic assessments about the obstacles along its way, not just as problems arise but also in the long-term sense to ensure it can continue on its developmental trajectory. The author made the point that strategic intelligence and a forward-looking mindset is equally important, as the challenges the country face are increasingly technical and require special expertise. As mentioned in the book, bulk information collection alone cannot counter all threats and prevent attacks. A fact in one cultural or geopolitical context can mean something entirely different in another. The situation of this information in its appropriate setting is what ultimately makes it actionable and useful for policymakers.

The panelists agreed that India has not so far faced the problem of its political leadership disregarding solid intelligence. There were concerns about a tendency to rate information from intelligence sources higher than that from other sources such as diplomatic communications, although this was not believed to be a widespread problem. Although there have been several failures, many panelists also felt that intelligence agencies form easy targets for blame as they cannot defend themselves. On the flip side, their successes largely fly under the radar when it comes to the larger public. Corrective measures have been taken and the system is constantly evolving, although whether it is at a fast enough rate remains to be seen.

The issue of oversight came up periodically, as the risk of overstepping boundaries and violating the rights of citizens in a democracy for the sake of security is ever-present. India again is not unique in facing this dilemma. Parliamentary oversight in particular was brought up, owing to a similar system that exists in the US. Some panelists also brought up the fact that since there is rarely a divergence between overt and covert actions - undertaken separately by various agencies and institutions -- the need for oversight of external agencies is less pressing than say, in the US. Some also felt that such a system would not work in India owing to the differing priorities of career politicians, and the propensity for leaks. The mention in the book of the presence of numerous sources for the CIA and KGB in the Indian political leadership during the days of the Cold War is evidence that such a risk is real. As India plays a balancing game between competing power centers whose relations with each other are themselves evolving, the damage done by leaks could be significant. The book is also careful to distinguish between internal and external intelligence, as their respective needs, methods used and operating environment differ considerably—the former is bound by the laws of its country, while the latter is necessarily outside the law of the country it operates in. Some of the panelists felt that the oversight needs of domestic agencies and those of external agencies are separate, and that action with regard to the former could be taken.

Another point brought up by the panelists, and something touched upon by the author as well in the section on intelligence reforms for India, was the success of an intelligence agency depends on the health of its environment—be it the quality of human resources and talent that is available, or the bureaucratic structure it finds itself in. The needs of intelligence agencies and those of administrative services are markedly different. The panelists agreed that the book was timely and thought-provoking and a good conversation-starter about the practice of intelligence. Some suggested this was useful reading for politicians, who may not always understand the ways in which intelligence is acquired. Understanding the existing system of collection, interpretation and dissemination of intelligence is what will eventually lead to an institutional environment that effectively facilitates these processes.

This report was prepared by Kanak Gokarn, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

Opening Remarks by ORF Chairman

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