Leadership issues have plagued the NTRO since its inception
Although a number of my former colleagues in the intelligence and police fraternity are disappointed to read press reports that an IAS generalist is slated to take over as the next chairman of the beleaguered National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO),knowing that the selected officer has the calibre and technical credentials as also a sound security background I am confident that under his stewardship the NTRO has a good
chance of achieving the lofty objectives of the stalwarts who conceived it.
It all started when the task force on a revamp of Indias intelligence apparatus,set up by the group of ministers headed by then deputy PM L.K. Advani post-Kargil,found huge gaps in the technical intelligence (techint) capabilities of our agencies,both defence and civil. The task force was headed by G.C. (Gary) Saxena,former chief of R&AW and governor,Jammu and Kashmir. There were two ways to fill this gap: the allocation of additional resources to each of the several agencies to build their respective capabilities,or to set up a new techint agency. It was envisaged that this agency would function in a neutral manner,without itself acquiring the role of an intelligence agency. The task force opted for the latter.
The seed of the National Technical Facilities Organisation (NTFO) was thus sown. But the government machinery in India,as we all know,grinds painfully slow. It took several years to issue the classified (top secret) notification for creation of the NTFO,in 2004. It was meant to attract the best multi-discipline scientific,technical and intelligence talent from within the country and abroad to set up world-class SIGINT,IMINT,CyberINT and cryptography facilities based on cutting-edge technologies. Its inputs were meant to be shared with the various intelligence agencies in real time. The chairman of the NTFO was given considerable discretion in the areas of appointments and acquisitions. To give the organisation greater freedom
to fulfil its mandate,it was placed directly under the NSA and the PMO.
The hunt for the right person to be appointed the first chairman to lay the foundation of the NTFO was short. In a manner so typical of the functioning of our bureaucracy,the senior-most officer in R&AW,who was bypassed for heading the organisation,was given the chairmanship of the NTFO as a sop. At his instance,the NTFO was,erroneously in my view,renamed the NTRO. It inherited a number of R&AWs techint assets. The founding chairman brought with him his trusted band of ARC (an R&AW outfit he was heading for a number of years) officers with him,promising higher emoluments and accelerated promotions. An unhealthy rivalry over division of men and material between the parent body and the newborn agency unfortunately set in.
Thanks to the efforts of a few experienced intelligence officers from the defence forces and the R&AW,who constituted the nucleus of the fledgling organisation,the NTRO was launched quietly and efficiently with a rented house in a south Delhi residential colony serving as its headquarters. But it was soon bogged down by serious teething troubles,with squabbles among its hybrid cadres,brought in from the scientific (drawn mainly from the DRDO),intelligence and defence services,accentuated by the absence of approved recruitment rules.
In 2006,the first chairman of the NTRO completed his term. The new UPA government decided not to give him another extension,and felt that the post should be held by an eminent and experienced scientist. The search committee selected a senior missile scientist to head the organisation. He was generally respected by his former colleagues in the DRDO as a good man. He tried to do his best,but proved unequal to the task in the area of administration. He was hesitant to take tough decisions and allowed his juniors to take advantage of his soft nature. The organisation was inundated by a spate of complaints and media leaks by disgruntled and unscrupulous elements,who were trying to push their personal agendas at the cost of the organisations future.
When the scientist chairmans term ended,the government did make a serious effort to put the organisation back on the rails by selecting an officer with a proven track record in internal and external intelligence to succeed him. But,sadly,the decision-makers developed cold feet following a media campaign against his appointment by vested interests. The government again did a flip-flop and appointed the best loser for the R&AWs top job to be the third chairman. This well-meaning incumbent got bogged down by several court cases with little time to devote to the flow of techint inputs to the consumers,the organisations raison d etre. The fledgling NTRO continues to be more or less in a state of limbo,performing far below its potential.
The writer is a retired secretary,internal security,Union home ministry and senior advisor,NTRO