In the spring of 2009, even as municipal crews in Mumbai were still sifting through the debris of 26/11, India’s newly-appointed home minister, P Chidambaram, was ushered into the digital heart of the United States’ war against terrorism, its super-secret National Counter-Terrorism Centre. He gazed intently, an aide recalls, at its giant video-walls, where information from across the world displayed in real time, and asked searching questions about the dozens of classified databases that feed them.
Later that year, Chidambaram promised a made-in-India NCTC would be up and running “by the end of 2010”- a third of the time it had taken the United States. “India cannot afford to wait 36 months”, he declaimed.
Indians waited that, and longer-and while they did, the foundations on which India’s intelligence services have been rotting. The Intelligence Bureau, highly-placed government sources said, is over 30% short of staff-particularly critical mid-level executive positions. For its part, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), tasked with securing Indian interests across the world, has desperate shortages of specialists in languages and the sciences-deficits that are running as high as 40% in critical departments.
Later this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to make his first appointment to lead the Intelligence Bureau. He is expected to choose from among Ashok Prasad, who helped build the organisation’s counter-terrorism data-hub, the Multi-Agency Centre, D P Sinha, a veteran of anti-terror operations, and Dineshwar Sharma, a quiet but highly respected analyst, who won his spurs when he volunteered to serve in Jammu and Kashmir in the early 1990s.
The Prime Minister will also have to find a leader to rebuild R&AW-devastated by internal feuds, staff shortages and technology deficits. He is expected to choose between Rajinder Khanna, the leader of R&AW’s counter-terrorism efforts in recent years, and Arvind Saxena, a veteran with long experience of Pakistan, the United States and organisational management.
Too few spies
Figures released to Parliament by the United Progressive Alliance government show that even as Chidambaram’s efforts to create new institutions became the focus of official efforts, staffing deficits became endemic across the intelligence services. In March 2013, then Minister of State for Home R P N Singh told Parliament that the IB had 18,795 personnel on its rolls, against a sanctioned strength of 26,867 – in other words, a shortfall of over 30 per cent, and that based on manpower requirements drawn up in the 1970s.
The effects are evident across the states: dedicated counter-terrorism groups set up by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, while he was Intelligence Bureau chief, have been sucked into routine duties. The Intelligence Bureau’s operations hub in New Delhi has just 30-odd executive staff.
Intelligence Bureau chief Asif Ibrahim has cut the shortfall to some 7,000 people-taking in as many as the service’s overstretched training facility can handle. It’s proved just too little though and not because of lack of trying. In 2009, Chidambaram authorised the hiring of 6,000 personnel. However, the IB’s existing training facilities can process just 600 to 700 staff in a year, which barely covers attrition from retirements and resignations.
“There’s another problem, too”, notes a senior Intelligence Bureau officer. “Let’s say we, by some miracle, find the 6,000-odd people we need in one go. They’ll need to be promoted from time to time-and there just won’t be positions for them. The government needs to do a thoroughgoing review of staffing, and the last one just wasn’t interested”.
R&AW, estimated to have some 5,000 personnel, faces a similar shortage. The organisation is short of some 130 management-level staff, the sources said, particularly cutting-edge under-secretaries and deputy secretaries.
R&AW is also short of personnel with specialist language and area knowledge, particularly Arabic, Chinese and minor Pakistani languages.
R&AW’s technological capabilities have also fallen behind, leaving it blind to the digital world. Its economic analysis desk is headed by a police officer on deputation from a north-eastern state with no training in the discipline; its scientific division, again, by a police officer with no postgraduate qualification in science.
The most critical deficiencies, however, are in critical technology positions – the core of modern espionage. R&AW, the sources said, is now approximately a third short of its sanctioned strength of cryptanalysts, who are charged with breaking enemy codes and ciphers. These deficits are in stark contrast to the global trend, where intelligence services have been hiring ever-greater numbers of scientists. The United States’s National Security Agency, for example, is reported to have over 4,000 computer specialists and 1,000 mathematicians on its rolls.
Investments in science have been of huge value to building the NSA’s capabilties. The NSA has, for example, successfully undermined internet encryption-the foundations of secure transmission of information, used by terrorist groups and banks alike. This was achieved by inserting what are known as back-doors into the elliptic curve algorithms that drive the pseudo-random number generators used to generate digital keys. This was done because staff in the NSA had a sophisticated knowledge of the mathematics involved, recently described by Thomas Hales of the University of Pittsburgh.
India’s over five-year effort to monitor encrypted traffic-run by the mainly military-staffed National Technical Research Organisation-has failed to make progress in decrypting even chat programmes used by terrorists, like Viber and Skype. India has been forced to rely for information on legal requests to service providers-responses to which often arrive too late to be of use, officers say.
“This problem can’t be solved without a whole of government approach”, an RAW officer notes. “The United States, at any time, has 20,000 graduate students studying mathematics. We don’t have a small fraction of that. And we just don’t have language schools producing enough students to fill our area-specialist needs”.
Long years of neglect, intelligence officials said, had contributed to the staffing crisis at the R&AW and the IB. “The intelligence services,” a senior officer said, “had always relied on young Indian Police Service officers, recruited early in their careers, to serve in middle and senior-management roles. The overall shortfall in the IPS’s strength, though, has meant states are loath to allow their best officers to serve in New Delhi on deputation.”
The R&AW’s internal cadre, the Research and Analysis Service, for its part, froze recruitment from the 2004-2005 batch to the 2009-2010 batch, and in other years, cut hiring to a trickle. Last year, bulk recruitment to fill the deficits was agreed on, but a debate about whether needs would be best met through Union Public Service Commission-run examinations or campus recruitment rages on.
In addition, the organisation remains deeply divided by career resentment within the RAS, whose personnel say they are denied adequate opportunities compared with IPS officers arriving on deputation – some of them with little or no past intelligence skills. IPS officials, their RAS counterparts charge, are often appointed at the level of Joint Secretary and above, blocking prospects for career intelligence officers.
V Balachandran, a former R&AW veteran who conducted an official investigation of 26/11 for the Maharashtra government, and was himself an IPS officer, concurs. “You can’t run your space programme, or Army, with people on deputation. You can’t run your intelligence services that way, either.”
Increasingly, insiders are saying it is time for the government to go back to the drawing board. “Like other countries”, says former R&AW officer Rana Banerjee, “its time India started hiring intelligence staff through an open, competitive examination, perhaps conducted by the UPSC. Its time we drew up a dispassionate appraisal of the skills we need, and set about finding people who have them”.
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