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Reforming India's Intelligence Structure

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More than a year ago, the Vice President of India, Mr. M. Hamid Ansari, pointed out in a speech the lack of good governance that plagued intelligence agencies in India, and a subsequent need for a parliamentary oversight committee to provide democratic accountability to these agencies. “That was the trigger needed for us at IDSA to embark on this journey to examine the intelligence structure in India through a taskforce,” said Mr. N.S. Sisodia, Director-General of IDSA, at the ORF-IDSA roundtable organised at Observer Research Foundation on February 23, 2011.

The main aim of the roundtable was to discuss the two reports brought out on the intelligence structure — the Task Force report by IDSA, headed by Mr. Rama Banerji and the ORF report, ‘Locating Intelligence Agencies in a Democratic Framework,’ written by Mr. Daanish Sheikh. A formative discussion took place following the presentation of the two reports which looked at various aspects of the intelligence structure, namely the legislative framework, recruitment, systemic and financial accountability, training, and coordination between various intelligence entities.

The fundamental question that was asked in the roundtable was how one can empower the intelligence agencies so that they are equipped with the tools and resources to address the challenges in the 21st century. Mr. Banerji stressed the importance to create a comprehensive and systemic reform and change the intelligence culture, and not merely create reform based on a crisis-driven approach. Tackling reform in a holistic way is crucial to providing the intelligence landscape with the tools necessary to provide optimum security.

The ORF report, presented by Ms. Menaka Guruswamy, a Supreme Court lawyer, focused mainly on the legal architecture of intelligence structure and highlighted some very essential points. She noted that the report brought forth the idea of strengthening accountability through a 4-tier conceptual framework, providing accountability on the internal, parliamentary, executive, and independent level. She emphasised the need for internal control by creating a clear mandate of what falls under national security, as Indian intelligence agencies had not been established, or were presently being funded, audited, or regulated by law.

One of the most contentious recommendations suggested by both the reports was the idea of creating oversight mechanisms through the setting up of a parliamentary oversight committee. A discussion ensued on the extent to which a Parliamentary body could politically influence intelligence data evaluation. Notable scholars thus argued that within a limited jurisdiction of evaluation and transparency, the parliamentary oversight committee could enhance the democratic accountability of the intelligence architecture. This would, to a certain extent, create checks and balances for the financial accountability, which was severely lacking in many of the intelligence organisations, especially the Secret Service organisations.

Other challenges that were highlighted were the problems of recruitment and training. There was continued debate on the lack of skilled human capital pool available from which recruitment to these organisations are made. The Task Force report recommended the procedure of using an open and direct recruitment channel rather than staffing prospectives that ranked far below the crème de la crème of the UPSC entrants. There is also a crucial need for more transparency in the evaluation process, better quality supervision, and a significant need to fill the gap of the scarce number of applicants from the science, technology, and engineering cadre. Mr. Mohan Guruswamy, Chairman, Centre for Policy Alternatives, most aptly noted the fundamental lack of linguistic knowledge that many agents struggle with and that within itself creates a significant barrier in understanding the socio-political culture of a society and providing accurate intelligence.

Through a prolific debate on the fundamental aspects of intelligence that need to be restructured, the roundtable proved to be a successful endeavour in not only shedding light on various recommendations that may prove effective in improving the intelligence agencies, but also in providing a forum for figures from the government, media, think tanks and intelligence agencies to discuss these issues.

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