Should Indian Intelligence agencies be made accountable? Should the National Security Council (NSC), which advises the Prime Minister and the National Security Advisor (NSA), who heads it, be made statutory or bodies created by law? Should they be made accountable to parliament? Well, these are some of the talking points among the top bureaucracy these days.
In foreign countries, intelligence agencies are defined and created by acts or laws which clearly outline their powers and functions. This is not the case in India, where both the Intelligence Bureau and RAW were created through executive orders. Even the office of the NSA does not have legislative backing. And parliamentary oversight is a very sensitive, almost taboo, subject amongst the intelligence fraternity in India.
But change is inevitable, so while netas are busy with election campaigns, babus are busy discussing their future.
If the BJP comes back to power, more discretionary powers would be given to agencies, while the Congress has promised to make the system more transparent. Both scenarios and possible pitfalls are topics of discussions.
Babudom is most scared of the word "accountability". And so, it is the most discussed word which draws mixed reactions from people who take serious decisions regarding "national security".
"Limited scrutiny should be allowed and why not? Operational details can be left out. All over the world, agencies are accountable, we cannot buck the trend," states one serving bureaucrat who further acknowledges that accountability among Indian intelligence agencies is very low.
"Sri Lanka took strict action (after the Easter Sunday) terror attacks, but we have failed to do so not once, but many a times," he regrets.
After 26/11, no security officials were penalized. The officers in charge of Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) in 2008 claim that inputs provided by USA were not enough to be acted upon.
Some old-timers recall that after Kargil in 1999, the serving Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) Secretary Arvind Dave was made a Lieutenant Governor.
In Pulwama too, intelligence agencies failed to provide meaningful actionable inputs. Almost two and a half months after the attack which left more than 40 jawans dead, reports sent to the Home Ministry have failed to fix accountability for any organisation or officer.
Interestingly, the national security plan released by the Congress and based on the report by Northern Army Commander Lt Gen (retd) DS Hooda stresses on a parliamentary standing committee on intelligence to regularly audit the standards and performance of our agencies and further making recommendations for improvement.
Maybe that's one of the reason why a lot of "chai par charcha" is taking place in Raisina Hills and Sardar Patel Bhavan on issues like practical boundaries of intrusive inspection and accountability of intelligence agencies on invasion of privacy or human rights violations under the Right To Information (RTI) Act.
Some officers state that there is reluctance from the political class because it sees the agencies as instruments for partisan exploitation and not for defending national interests. Then there is reluctance also from sections of the intelligence officers themselves because they think that unchecked secrecy gives them an aura of power and influence which they do not want to lose.
But the fact is absence of legislative cover can be a serious lacuna as all intelligence work is carried out under executive instructions. And often, intelligence agencies can be forced to turn on each other. Last year, during CBI vs CBI, two officers of Intelligence Bureau personnel were detained by the staff of former CBI Director Alok Verma near his home. Later, it was alleged they were spying on him. In the same case, allegations were made by senior officials of phones being tapped, including that of NSA.
"If you have a Minister telling the DIB (Director, Intelligence Bureau) to go and do something, and for him to say I will not do it, he should have a piece of paper to say this is what the law says," points out a former DIB.
"Accountability already exits, if you want to fine tune it further it should be done with deliberations," states a serving senior officer in an intelligence setup.
Another major accountability in the existing intelligence apparatus which needs to be addressed is financial though the idea of Secret Service Funds (SSF) being audited even if in camera does not have many takers in the government.
Not many know that contrary to popular perception, SSFs have remained outside the purview of any audit - so far. Only a bland annual certificate of full use has to be given by the head of the organisation.
And strangely, though the SSF has been steadily increasing every year in the government's annual budget but its unutilized component never gets surrendered, whereas other funds lapse if the project for which they are sanctioned remains unimplemented. This understandably encourages a suggestion of misuse and emphasises the need for change and some better form of regulation without compromising secrecy.
From purchase of capital equipment like cars in violation of standard prescribed norms of the Government, or the indiscriminate hiring of Safe-Houses, which more often than not are properties belonging almost exclusively to in-house employees at different levels of seniority.
Another recent practice has been to routinely engage retired employees, even in non-specialised categories and keep them employed indefinitely on hefty salaries paid from the SSF, totally by-passing the laid down government rules and regulations.
Babus do concede that if a Home Minister is seen as very powerful, no one jostles to control agencies. "LK Advani was an all-powerful Home Minister. He had sole control over IB and R&AW. All decisions relating security were taken by him. Vajpayee-ji had no issues in letting Deputy PM run the show," explains an old timer.
About P Chidambaram, says an officer, "He was a hard task-master but he never blocked communication of intelligence chiefs with the PM, but in the present regime, all communication which reaches PM is mostly through NSA, and it is not healthy in a democracy."
"Earlier also, we had strong NSAs. Vajpayee-ji used to depend on Brajesh Mishra a lot, the only difference between the two is that of personalities. Mishra-ji was also as assertive but Ajit Doval Sahab is very visible and that's why he is always in news," smilingly states a babu who also reports to the NSA.
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