Analysis: Why intel experts oppose NCTC

Analysis: Why intel experts oppose NCTC

PM and Chidambaram at the NCTC meet

New Delhi:  It's not just UPA's main ally Mamata Banerjee or Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik who are opposing the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), but even Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) - India's external intelligence agency - had put up a red flag way back in early 2010. And, theirs was, perhaps, the first dissent that the Home Minister P Chidambaram faced.

On December 23, 2009, hearing the Union Home Minister P Chidambaram at Vigyan Bhawan deliver the 22nd Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture in which he mooted for the first time the setting "up the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), the then Secretary of RA&W, K C Verma's, mind wandered off to the early years of the beginning of the 21st century.

He was in the operations wing of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) then. Two terrorists operating from Mumbai area had to be eliminated. Although the operation was successful, there was one glitch. The IB was working with the Mumbai police and hadn't kept the local Mumbra police in the loop. And it was in Mumbra - a locality adjoining Mumbai - where the terrorists were based. After the operation, the Mumbra police was demanding its pound of flesh and credit. The resulting turf battle- with the Intelligence Bureau and the Mumbai Police on one side and the Mumbra police on the other - soon assumed bitter and unimaginable proportions and threatened to undo the entire operation.

Selective leaks in the media about how the encounter may have been a completely staged and faked one, were getting too difficult to handle. Fortunately, for the Intelligence Bureau, the actual encounter was carried out by the local police and the IB itself had no role to play except to track down the terrorist and lead the policemen to them. After two harrowing weeks of damage control when the controversy showed signs of dying out, Verma became even more convinced about the IB modus-operandi; that of keeping a local police in the front and never showing its hand in any operation was one of the best way to deal with terror situations.

The proposed NCTC with its operations wing and charter of national agencies carrying out pre-emptive anti-terror operations threatened to undo just that.  Associated with this, was the fear that an overt hand in anti-terror operations would also open up these intelligence agencies to legal scrutiny which would not only turn embarrassing but at times even disastrous, given most intelligence tools used to carry out covert executive actions have no legal sanctity.

So the opposition to NCTC within the intelligence community broadly stemmed from two concerns - lack of deniability if operations are carried out without keeping the local police in the front and also the chances of being dragged through the courts in case operations go wrong- which often happen.

Verma, a dyed-in-the-wool intelligence officer, known for his reputation for not holding back punches wrote out a dissent note detailing why the proposed NCTC wouldn't auger well for India. This was the first opposition to NCTC. Verma's discomfort with the NCTC was also shared by the then National Security Advisor (NSA) and former head of the IB, M K Narayanan.

Mr Narayanan on his part pointed out that even in the United States of America, the NCTC doesn't have an operations wing. In a detailed paper to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, Mr Narayanan is understood to have pointed that NCTC in the US only collects, collates and analyzes information and then feeds the CIA, FBI and host of other intelligence organizations.  Fusing operations wing of the IB and RA&W would prove to be counter - productive for pre-emptive counter terror operations and unacceptable to states even, he wrote. It's alleged that this opposition to NCTC and his hard line on Pakistan was largely responsible for Mr Narayanan's sudden and unceremonious exit that took him instead to the Raj Bhawan in Kolkata.

Although Mr Narayanan was shunted out, Mr Chidamabram still couldn't negotiate with the Union Cabinet successfully.  The NCTC mandate was vastly diluted from the initial 2009 proposal.

Originally Mr Chidambaram envisaged the NCTC as an umbrella counter-terror outfit with the operations wing of the country's premier intelligence agencies ( R&AW, IB, NIA, NSG) all coming under it and reporting to the Home Minister alone. This was not approved by the cabinet.

On January 12, 2012, the Cabinet Committee cleared a very truncated version of the original version of the NCTC. This new version says the new NCTC will function within the IB and the Director of the NCTC would report to the Director of the Intelligence Bureau, Union Home Secretary and Home Minister. So the grand proposal for an independent body with a single counter-terror Czar has been shelved for the time being.

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