6 October 2015

Empower intelligence agencies

Updated: October 5, 2015 
Mr. Parker’s interview should be looked at in the context of proposed legislation by the David Cameron government that would give more teeth to U.K. agencies in fighting terror. A more articulate intelligence agency can help make the public understand the national security threats better. However, this should be done while making sure that its operational secrecy is not compromised

Folklore has it that the profession of ‘intelligence’ is a cloak-and-dagger affair, enveloped in a certain mystique that is hard to unravel. It has always been looked upon as a calling that requires self-effacing men and women who are little-known to the public. Except for an occasional upstart — we did have a few of them in our own country — no intelligence operative is ever heard in public espousing his cause over the media, especially when he is still actively employed under a government. So, when the head of a traditional and low-profile MI5 — United Kingdom’s domestic intelligence outfit — goes live on BBC Radio 4, describing the current terror scene in the country and what his agency ought to do and what its obstacles are, eyebrows are certain to be raised.

It would be interesting to speculate whether the Indian government would ever fancy our Intelligence Bureau (IB) director going to the media to explain the threats facing us, as the MI5 chief did. I do not see anything wrong in such a departure from the past, as long as it serves to educate the common man and instruct him on the perils of complacency and unwillingness to be proactive in hunting down terrorists who are living in our very midst. I would, therefore, certainly commend such a dose of transparency. This may be tried after making sure that openness in the national interest does not compromise on the IB’s operational secrecy. This is not difficult to achieve. I know that many current and past intelligence men will be outraged by my suggestion. Nevertheless, it is worth an experiment, if we have to move with the times.

Andrew Parker (53), the director-general of MI5 — an Oxford graduate and a veteran of three decades in the business of collecting intelligence that has national security implications — did this most unconventional thing a few days ago. He was the first serving head to do so. Without being fuzzy, and scrupulously avoiding any jargon, he told the nation in clear terms that they were facing a full-blown threat from various terrorist groups, and could not, therefore, afford to relax their vigil for a moment. How can they forget the July 2005 attack on London transport — on three underground railway stations and one overground bus — in which 52 people lost their lives? The situation since then has remained troubling, although there may not have been any external manifestation of it on the streets of London. The current threat level is described ‘severe’ in official parlance. It is for the record that MI5, teaming up with other forces including the fabled Scotland Yard (otherwise known as the Met), foiled at least six attempts at sabotage by terrorist outfits during the past year, the highest since 9/11. This is no mean achievement.

R.K. Raghavan

Mr. Parker’s candour during the impressive conversation with BBC Presenter Mishal Husain sounded refreshing and worthy of emulation. What he said during this unusual interview was remarkable — he pointed fingers at some elements born and raised in the U.K. as the primary source of danger. He could not have been more precise and truthful. A counter-intelligence agency can normally identify and defang hostile infiltrators from abroad, under cover in an alien territory. However, how does one take care of the threat posed by some members from the local population itself? How does one ferret out anti-national citizens waiting for an opportunity to strike at their own motherland? These are issues which cry for answers and clear tactics.

The average citizen does not often comprehend that he has a major role in this vital exercise of extirpating domestic enemies, a surgery that is performed at the grass roots. In this respect, both the MI5 and our very own Intelligence Bureau have their tasks cut out, mainly because modern terrorism has transcended national borders and has been consumed by fearful religious fanaticism. The Bombay blast of 1993 was perpetrated principally by our own nationals. The Indian Mujahedeen (IM) — grown on the domestic soil and watered by agencies across the border — is currently our principal terror outfit. It may be numerically small, but has a fervour that is difficult to underestimate.

The four youths who orchestrated and took a direct part in the London attack of 2005 were all British citizens. Some recent arrests for suspicious activities have also been of British nationals. It is therefore, a somewhat identical agenda of penetrating the domestic terror outfits — more than anything else — that persuades the MI5 and the IB to collaborate and aid the respective governments to preserve the public order.

I can vouch for the fact that the counter-intelligence operatives belonging to the two countries enjoy an excellent working relationship. Unlike the hiccups reported between Indian and U.S. agencies a few years ago in the case of David Coleman Headley, the MI5 — along with MI6 and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the external intelligence arms of the U.K. and India respectively — and the IB act in tandem, a bond facilitated by a bonhomie assiduously built over decades.

Mr. Parker’s BBC interview should be looked at in the context of the proposed legislation of the David Cameron government that would give more teeth to U.K. agencies in fighting terror. There is a theory that the MI5 chief’s act of going public was at the instance of the government, and aimed at building public opinion in favour of the legal changes on the anvil. Whatever be the truth, the focus of the new laws could be to explore how to permit greater latitude to intelligence organisations in the area of surveillance, especially on the electronic front, while making sure that the danger of their being hauled up by courts for transgression is reduced considerably. This is an extremely delicate exercise. Any overzealousness and insensitivity to the feelings of any section of the citizenry is bound to arouse passions, particularly among the advocates of privacy. One can learn from the mistakes and excesses of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S. that was indicted a few years ago for overstepping its limits in the area of monitoring telephone calls and electronic traffic.

Tech help

Although Mr. Parker did not complain about the rigmarole involved in obtaining permission to watch every targeted telephone connection suspected to be used by terrorists, there is possibly a need for delegation of powers. At present, both in India and the U.K., telephones can be monitored only with the permission of the Home Secretary. The authority is a Minister in the case of the U.K, and a civil servant in the case of India. In the U.S., the process involves a court sanction. It is debatable whether a political appointee like the U.K. Home Secretary can be more trustworthy and objective than a career bureaucrat in approving the choice of targets. My point is, if you cannot trust exalted functionaries such as the MI5 chief or the head of India’s IB to be wholly professional, there is a question mark over the very process of appointing them.

During his BBC interview, the MI5 chief referred to the need for a greater cooperation from technology companies with regard to the sharing of information, especially the encrypted messages. He threw more than a hint of reluctance on their part. Encryption of Internet traffic and telephonic messages was another handicap that makes the task of intelligence agencies even more difficult. The problem New Delhi had with Blackberry a few years ago is still green in our memory. Only a measure of arm-twisting ultimately forced Blackberry — whose USP was its heavy encryption and servers that skipped local scrutiny — to relent. Significantly, U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May met representatives of major communication companies two days before Mr. Parker’s interview. Obviously the need for what Mr. Parker referred to as ‘ethical responsibility’ on the part of these firms figured in the discussions. A proactive role and a set of obligatory rules for the private sector could be a feature of the new law expected to be placed in Parliament in October.

In the ultimate analysis, the enormous terrorist reach across nations warrants greater operational freedom for intelligence agencies, so that they tip off law enforcement more accurately and swiftly. If this necessitates greater intrusion into the lives of law abiding citizens, such compromise of privacy is the price we pay for securing our lives. The only caveat is that the greater empowerment of intelligence officials should be accompanied by a simultaneous strengthening of oversight by a body of eminent individuals whose reputation alone should guarantee the desired objectivity and a perceptible sense of moderation.

(R.K. Raghavan is a former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation)

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