Author’s Disclaimer: This chapter has been written about intelligence needs in a generic sense and is not meant to be a critique or a defence of any existing intelligence organisation in India. The stress is on preparing for future threats that may be considerably different in their nature and effects from what India faces today as it is feared that we are not truly prepared to handle the emerging situation.

Some of the questions we should be asking are: What are the security threats that India would face in 2025 or 2030? What kind of an intelligence organisation would thus be needed either to protect our interests by preventing others from upstaging us or, if required, to reverse the trend among our rivals? Does the present organisation have the ingredients to deliver?

If not, what needs to be done so that we are not found wanting in 2025? In doing so, we have to evolve our own systems and not just copy others…

We need to be looking at reforms from the following perspectives:

Starting early

It must be borne in mind that we have to begin preparations now for the next two decades or more considering that it takes about ten to fifteen years for an intelligence officer to gather experience in various aspects of intelligence in order to mature. A young recruit who joins at the age of twenty to twenty-two will be at his or her peak between the ages of thirty-five and forty. Thereafter he functions mostly as a senior supervisor.

Improve, not merely control

Thoughtful supervision and mindless control are two different issues. In India, reform has mostly meant more organisations, more posts and more control. True reform would consider past experiences, present conditions and evolving threats to make a judgement on the kind of intelligence agency required, say, fifteen to twenty years from now. True reform is also best achieved and is reasonable when carried out from within.

This would obviously mean a thorough evaluation of the abilities of the agencies that exist and what needs to be done so that the intelligence agency of the day twenty years from now is in a position to deliver at that time. No such exercise has been seriously carried out in India. Intelligence reforms in India have remained sporadic and crisis-linked. Also, reforms in India have essentially been about exercising greater control without seeking to improve the performance.

Any intelligence organisation that is manned by careerists who are either too old to be moulded or are too risk-averse is on a sharp downhill trajectory. Any government of the day must guard against this because faulty or inaccurate intelligence is far more dangerous than no intelligence.

Accountability and empowerment

In a democratic system, it is desirable to have a measure of clarity in the working of intelligence agencies, both to define purpose and to ensure that tasks assigned are performed within the charter. Therefore, while on the one hand accountability of intelligence may be considered essential, it is meaningless without a legalised existence, a legalised charter, empowerment and then accountability.

Legislation, therefore, has to be an aid to intelligence and not an impediment; it should encourage performance, risk taking and not stifle initiative and make the organisation risk-averse. There must be a clear demarcation of responsibilities allowing for the necessary overlap. Each intelligence organisation must have a clearly defined legalised charter.

Previous attempts at a bill were expectedly thrown out because it was designed to run the intelligence apparatus as a human rights organisation. The private member’s bill, ‘The Intelligence Services (Powers and Regulation) Bill, 2011’, did not make any progress in the Lok Sabha as it was far too stifling in its endeavour to provide accountability without flexibility and empowerment. All the various extensive controls suggested would have killed any intelligence organisation.

As a principle, external controls by those with little or no knowledge of intelligence functioning have to be minimised as they only lead to bottlenecks. At the same time, internal controls have to be made stricter.

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Recruitment patterns need to change

This would mean looking at the recruitment pattern, evaluating the talent required in the future, and creating an organisational structure that would draw in talent or outsource some aspects and recruit from the open market. Personnel to be recruited would include linguists by the hundred, in Chinese, Arabic of different dialects, Persian, Hebrew, Pushto, Darri, Urdu, Balochi, Sindhi, Nepali, Tibetan, Bangla, Bhasa Indonesia, Malay, Japanese, Russian, French and German.

These requirements are bound to grow as the country’s interests grow. Intelligence organisations need to recruit skilled workers massively, including mathematicians to break cipher codes, cyber security experts, hackers, software experts, hostage negotiators, scientists, robotic experts, military experts, issue experts and economists and financial whiz kids who understand international financial systems.

Intelligence operatives at all levels have to be net-savvy as the future will be determined less on the battlefields and more in cubicles and on screens. Mid-career course corrections and training are very necessary to update the skills of existing personnel. Rigidity in functioning and unimaginative supervision have no place in an intelligence organisation, as rigid parameters will curb the flexibility that is key to its efficient running.

The skills required are so varied and the price to be paid for such skills so high that all agencies will need to think of ways and means of attracting and retaining this talent. This perhaps will be the biggest challenge for the government while preparing an intelligence organisation for the future.

Intelligence organisations not only need to have language skills, interrogation skills, ability to deal with hostages, area and issue expertise, and operational skills of a special kind individually, but also must understand that there can be no hope for victory without international cooperation. The traditional route of recruiting officers through the organised civil service should be abandoned and talent needs to be found in the open market.

Commenting on the recruitment pattern, this author had said in a report in 2006:

“The age of the generalist and the bird of passage is surely over. An officer on deputation comes without area expertise, language skills and does not necessarily have the attitude, time or incentive to acquire these skills during his tenure, long or short. The chief motive of such an officer on deputation is to hope for a comfortable foreign assignment without adding much to the experience basket of the organisation.”

Officers on deputation these days come with additional baggage – most are politicised or unwanted in the states. It is, therefore, a fallacy to assume that the salvation of intelligence organisations lies in greater induction from existing services.

All intelligence organisations may be better served by dedicated long-term personnel with just a few areas of expertise, or regional experts co-opted for specific projects. The R&AW, for instance, is now more than forty years old and does not need periodic induction of deputations whose arrival and departure do no add to the strength, skills and experience of the organisation.

On the other hand, there is inherent danger that officers who come and go carry back with them secrets of the functioning and other details about the organisation. The government must take a call on whether or not it is a good practice to expose such details to those who will leave after a few years.

Selection of the heads of organisations

Selection of the head of an intelligence organisation is a very important issue. Intelligence agencies are complicated secret organisations where functioning is compartmentalised on the basis of the need-to-know principle and very few ever get to see the entire working of the organisation throughout their careers.

It is, therefore, most desirable to always have, as the person heading the organisation, someone belonging to the system. Besides, this is good for the morale in organisations where there is no public recognition and no chance of lateral mid-career movement.

The government would also have to seriously consider fast- tracking talent based on suitability rather than relying simply on the seniority principle. This naturally means that the government would have to consider sizeable signing-off packages for those whose career has no future.

It has been the experience of many that threats sometimes emerge suddenly or change equally suddenly. This requires repositioning of material and human resources. It has also been the experience of many that by the time sanctions/approvals are obtained from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the financial advisor, considerable time elapses, with the result that the threat is inadequately covered, or worse, not covered at all. Heads of intelligence organisations should have powers to relocate resources on their own according to the perceived need. Each organisation should have this surge capacity.

Vikram Sood is Former Secretary, Research and Analysis Wing, Government of India.

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Future of Intelligence’, Vikram Sood, from The New Arthashastra: A Security Strategy for India, Edited by Gurmeet Kanwal, HarperCollins India.