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An open letter to the new NSA

By B Raman
Last updated on: January 25, 2010 14:36 IST
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Shiv Shankar Menon


New Delhi

I welcome your appointment as the National Security Adviser and wish you well in your new assignment. My purpose in writing this open letter to you is to share with you my thinking on the tasks ahead of you. Since retiring from the Research & Analysis Wing on August 31, 1994, I have written over a hundred articles on national security management. This letter will repeat some of the points figuring in those articles which are still valid and some others to which I will be giving open expression for the first time.

The importance of an action-oriented analytical process was highlighted by Lord Franks of the United Kingdom, who was asked by the British government to enquire into the failure of Britain's national security managers to anticipate and forestall the Argentine occupation of the Falklands Islands in 1982, which led to a brief, but fierce naval conflict. Lord Franks concluded that though there was no secret intelligence regarding Argentina's intentions and plans, there was considerable open source reporting in the US and Argentine media on this, but these reports were not taken seriously and analysed either in the Foreign Office or in the Joint Intelligence Committee to see what those reports implied and what action was called for. Hence, the so-called surprise.

The United States National Commission, which enquired into the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US Homeland, stressed the importance of the culture of joint action for dealing effectively with terrorism. It pointed out that effective coordination alone would not be adequate unless it was supplemented by the operating principle of joint action by all those having any responsibility for counter-terrorism.

This principle implies that every piece of intelligence is analysed jointly by everyone responsible for counter-terrorism and acted upon. One of the main purposes of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, which came into being in 2004 under the supervision of the director, National Intelligence, will be to enforce this responsibility for joint action. Every counter-terrorism agency will be individually and jointly responsible for ensuring that significant pieces of intelligence are promptly analysed and acted upon.

The recent enquiries by officials of the Barack Obama administration into the failed attempt by a Nigerian student to blow up a US commercial flight, from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, revealed that even more than five years after the NCTC was set up, the culture of an action-oriented analytical approach has not taken hold in the US national security establishment.

The father of the student alerted a US diplomat and a Central Intelligence Agency officer in Nigeria that his son had got radicalised and was suspected to be in Yemen. The diplomat conveyed the information to the State Department and the CIA officer to his agency's headquarters. Both passed on the information to the NCTC.

Days before the student boarded the plane at Amsterdam, the information that he is a security risk was available in the databases of the US Embassy in Nigeria, the State Department, the CIA and the NCTC, but it was not subjected to a joint analysis to see what the information implied and what joint action on it was called for.

In his statement in the Lok Sabha after taking over as the home minister after the 26/11 terrorist strike, P Chidambaram mentioned that he had found that responsibility for follow-up action on intelligence reports was diffused.

In December last year, the Hindustan Times had reported that twice in September 2008, the R&AW had reported about the Lashkar-e-Tayiba's plans for a sea-borne terrorist attack in Mumbai. The paper also quoted a senior unnamed official of the R&AW as saying that its responsibility was to collect and disseminate intelligence and that follow-up action on the intelligence disseminated was not its responsibility. This showed the total absence of the culture of joint action in our national security establishment. This should be a matter of serious concern and needs to be addressed.

The Kargil conflict of 1999 revealed a serious deficiency in our analysis and  follow-up action process. Every year, the Indian Army had been withdrawing its troops from the Kargil heights during winter. Before the onset of the winter of 1998-99, there were intelligence reports of unusual Pakistani army activity in the Gilgit-Baltistan area.

In the middle of 1998, Shyamal Dutta, the then director of the Intelligence Bureau, had analysed these activities and sent his assessment to the Prime Minister's Office and other concerned ministries. One would have expected an immediate meeting of the JIC to consider the implications of these developments and to recommend to the government whether in the light of these developments, the annual winter withdrawal by the Army should be cancelled. Nothing was done in Delhi and the decision to withdraw as usual was taken locally. The result: Pakistani occupation of the heights.

One would have thought that in the light of the detailed lessons drawn by the Kargil Review Committee, the analysis and follow-up action process would have improved. Unfortunately, this was not so. This became evident during the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai. The two reports received in September 2008, about the danger of a sea-borne attack by the LeT, were analysed and security was upgraded by the Mumbai police, the naval authorities and those in charge of physical security in the  Taj Hotel. Subsequently, nothing happened for seven weeks. There were no fresh reports.

There should have been an analysis in Delhi on what this lack of activity and absence of fresh reports implied. Did it mean that the threat no longer existed and that the security could be down-graded? These were very important questions which should have been examined in Delhi and instructions issued to the concerned authorities in Mumbai as to whether the high-level of security should continue or be downgraded. This was not done and there were no fresh instructions to Mumbai from Delhi. The local authorities in Mumbai downgraded the security on their own, presuming that the threat was less likely. Delhi was not aware of this till the terrorists struck on 26/11.

The analysis, assessment and follow-up action process has been in a state of neglect  for many years. Nothing illustrates this more than the state of the JIC. In 1983, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, bifurcated the JIC and created a separate JIC for internal security. Two years later, Rajiv Gandhi reversed her decision and re-merged them.

Officers of the IB and the R&AW started monopolising the post of the JIC chairman. When Inder Kumar Gujral was the prime minister, a move was made to consider military officers for this post. As no consensus could be reached on this, the post was kept vacant for nearly three years and the chief of the R&AW was asked to hold additional charge as the chairman of the JIC. He did not have adequate time to discharge this responsibility. The JIC functioned with no head and only half a body. There was a dramatic drop in the flow of military intelligence reports to the JIC.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government, which created a new national security management mechanism headed by the NSA, felt that with the creation of the National Security Council Secretariat, the JIC had become superfluous and made it a subordinate division of the NSCS with very limited independent powers of analysis, assessment and follow-up action.

The Task Force for the Revamping of the Intelligence Apparatus headed by G C Saxena, former head of the R&AW, recommended in 2000 that the JIC should be rescued from the limbo to which it had remained confined for about five years and restored to its original authority. It took another six years to implement its recommendation.

Previously, for nearly a decade, we had no body for analysis, assessment and follow-up action. Today we have three --- the JIC of the old vintage, the NSCS of the 1998-99 creation and the National Security Advisory Board, which came into existence in 1999 as a body of non-governmental analysts and advisers on national security. From a state of practically no analysis, we have gravitated to one of a plethora of analysis. Analysis for analysis sake without orienting it towards action has become the name of the game.

There is a need to re-visit the national security management system created in 1998-99 and subsequently modified by the revival of the JIC in order to ensure that the JIC, the NSCS, the NSAB and the NCTC, to be created in the ministry of home affairs, work in a coordinated manner instead of adding to the prevailing confusion.

The main responsibility of the JIC and the NCTC should be action-oriented analysis and follow-up action --- the JIC in respect of non-terrorism related threats to national security and the NCTC focusing on terrorism-related threats. The NSCS should confine itself to policy-related analysis to examine how past and present policies in national security matters have been working and whether any changes are called for. The NSAB should provide the inputs for the policy-related work of the NSCS. It should be encouraged to function as the generator of new ideas on specific issues to be referred to by the PM and the NSA.

Warm regards,

Yours sincerely,

B Raman, additional secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi

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