Wednesday, November 16, 2005

An intelligent concept


Asian Age V. Balachandran

President Ziaur Rehman of Bangladesh was killed in Chittagong on May 30, 1981. On that day our ambassador in a major West European capital, where I was posted on "cover," had invited his South Asian counterparts to the embassy residence for lunch. Much to his annoyance, I called him to the telephone to convey this news but his irritation vanished when he heard the details as he could dramatically announce to a startled Bangladesh ambassador, "Your Excellency, I am sorry to announce that your President has been shot dead." After this our ambassador who was quite sceptical of the utility of the RAW presence in the embassies became one of its ardent well-wishers, especially when he became foreign secretary later. It was of course a different matter that my "source" was BBC Radio!

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had issued standing orders that all important events happening around the world should be reported to him by RAW, since he was upset with the delays by the MEA. As the staff officer to the RAW chief during that period the "buck" stopped with me. Riots were raging in Algiers in October 1988. We had no RAW station there. Communications were totally cut off, but the Prime Minister wanted to know what he could do to help his friend President Chadli Benjedid to tide over the crisis. Since the ministry of external affairs (MEA) was totally in the dark, director PMO, a lady Foreign Service officer called me on a Saturday for a report within three-four hours. I tried to call our ambassador in Algiers but could not connect. I then called our "man" in Paris but he had gone on a picnic. Our own North Africa head was also totally in the dark.

Fortunately, I remembered that we were subscribing to Le Monde which used to reach Delhi next day by air. To my glee, the entire problem in Algiers was described in graphic details. What the rioters wanted was cous cous (wheat rava), their staple food, in addition to various other demands like democracy. In fact the riots were later known as "Cous-Cous riots." A detailed note was sent to the PM who was quite happy as he could offer tons of semolina to his friend Chadli.

Information in the above two cases was initiated by an intelligence organisation which was found useful by the policymakers. However was this "intelligence"? What is intelligence? Former US President Bush and Gen. Scowcroft, his national security adviser had said in their joint book A World Transformed that they heard about the August 18, 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev through CNN, although strong indications of this possibility had come earlier from the CIA. Are intelligence organisations news feeders like AIR, Doordarshan or CNN? Should intelligence agencies compete with the wire services?

Intelligence is knowledge, or foreknowledge of events around us enabling policymakers to take adequate and timely decisions. Sun Tsu, the 5th century BC Chinese philosopher, described foreknowledge as "the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move." The late Noshir Framji Suntook, RAW chief (1977-1983), used to have a small statuette on his desk depicting the Bible story of the Lord asking Moses to send a ruler of each of the tribes of Israel "to spy out the land of Canaan." He considered this as the first intelligence operation in history.

Intelligence is not mere collection of information. It is a long and often tedious process of bare facts becoming policy inputs through an alchemic process collection of facts, analysis, evaluation, assessment and dissemination to the policymakers who might like to ask questions before taking decisions.

However, not all intelligence undergoes such transformation: at the district or state level bare facts are presented by the district or state intelligence organisations leaving the onus of assessment to the senior officials on labour agitation, communal riots, or agrarian crisis. These are "law and order oriented intelligence" of short duration, but time-sensitive. In all such cases, the political masters expect intelligence agencies to compete with news agencies in delivering information. The late K.C. Khanna, resident editor of the Times of India, Mumbai had written a brilliant piece immediately after the fiasco on March 22, 1979 when Prime Minister Morarji Desai made a wrong announcement in Parliament about JPs death, that professionalism in intelligence agencies started declining when policymakers expected them to compete with wire services.

Intelligence is of two types "current intelligence" (what happens around us) and "estimative intelligence" (what is likely to happen). Both current and estimative intelligence can be "strategic" (long term, affecting the country as a whole) or "tactical" (limited and short term, both in time and area). Estimative intelligence is like a jigsaw puzzle and often difficult as inputs or trends might come from different sources, thereby testing the competence of the analysts to piece together to form the picture on a strategic canvas.

Open and clandestine sources feed intelligence. It is often found that 90% of what we need to know, even military intelligence is available openly if one cares to read. But it is the secret 10% that has to be dug out by intelligence agencies through clandestine operations which is crucial to plug the missing gaps. Open sources are media including technical journals, diplomatic contacts, trade, war games and air shows while clandestine sources are HUMINT (spies), SIGINT (signal intelligence), IMINT (imagery intelligence) and MASINT (measurement and signature intelligence).

National intelligence agencies are usually divided into "production" and "analysis" divisions. Production desks are field officials and their supervisors who run agents. On special occasions even outsiders are enlisted into field intelligence work. The British intelligence drafted Somerset Maugham, famous British novelist during the First World War. His experience is reflected in Ashendon, a fictionalised version. Technical divisions assist production desks by obtaining technical intelligence. Analysts who are expected to be area specialists anatomise this "raw" intelligence and conceptualise a "big" picture for policymakers. Scientists, economists, code breakers and military specialists assist this analysis.

V. Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

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