It’s a really nice package, all of the Rs 138 crore. Of course, it could be more, since the Multi-Agency Centre, for which it is meant, is a growing child of the Intelligence Bureau. In relative terms, the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) budget request this year is Rs 7,97,98,92,88,597.5. And there are none of the usual excuses of the US being a ‘global’ power. The FBI’s mission is supposedly internal, too, and includes law enforcement. Nonetheless, it has some 63 ‘legal attaches’ posted abroad to assist in its mission to ‘protect’ the United States in terms of the various transnational threats it faces. That is pretty much what the Intelligence Bureau does with far less money and far fewer men, barring playing a tough cop.
It’s a risky job, and dangerous, and sometimes entirely thankless, since few outside – or even within – the Agency know anything at all about its very many successes. Failures, however, are usually acknowledged quietly, or overtly.
How the MAC Was Set Up After Kargil
The latest budget hike is aimed at increasing the capability of a body set up after one such blatant failure, of not just the IB but all agencies on the ground. That was the Kargil War, when disparate intelligence that was received was never put together to make a clear threat analysis. The Kargil Review Committee, headed by the late K Subrahmanyam, made its recommendations based on inputs from all groups concerned, including the Armed Forces. That led to the Cabinet Committee on Security setting up a Group of Ministers (no less) to go into details.
Its report eventually led to the most wide-ranging reforms of national security architecture ever undertaken. Apart from defence, internal security, and border defence, the focus was also on improving the sharing, collection and analysis of information, which led to the setting up of multiple agencies, including the Defence Intelligence Agency, which was meant to encourage intelligence-sharing between service intelligence arms, the National Technical Research Organisation, and, among others, the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC), under the Intelligence Bureau.
Going Against the Very Nature of Spy Agencies
It was a formidable task. Intel agencies were made to do the opposite of what they were trained to do: share their inputs. The lesson from Kargil was that while there was enough intelligence being generated from the ground, it was simply not reaching the required ‘nodes’ in time. So, it proposed a body that would pool intel from some 28 intelligence agencies, including the coast guard, the police, or the Indo-Tibetan border guarding force, for instance, all of whom were to share their inputs with this central body.
Under the skillful guidance of various IB chairs, the MAC began with its unprecedented mandate. That meant sitting around a table, not just for sharing information but also for discarding huge chunks of it, as agency representatives sifted through enormous quantities of data.
One, for instance, warned of an incoming terrorist with ‘very white teeth’ from across the border. Some information was set aside for further examination. It was tough work, and most often, intel agencies simply refused to take it seriously enough, with many seeing it as the IB’s intrusion into their turf.
Sharing Nothing at All With 'Delhi'
The problem was fundamental. Asking an agency to share all its intelligence goes against its very nature, which is one of not sharing anything at all, unless on a strict ‘need to know’ basis. Besides, an intel officer would report a nice tidbit to his senior officer rather than a person from another agency. The MAC sought to overturn that basic character.
The other problem was more serious. Typically, once the crisis of Kargil was over, most state agencies lapsed into near somnolence, and a propensity to share nothing at all with ‘Delhi’. That also applied to an already overworked police force, dealing with the challenge of the daily press of work. Then, 9/11 happened, leading to a huge intelligence overhaul in the US, and a ‘lessons learned’ approach, all of it working towards preventing the ‘stovepiping’ of intelligence, which prevented the sharing of vital intel.
India’s intel agencies considered all this with interest, but without any sense of urgency – until 26/11 happened. That attack was forecast by the Joint Intelligence Committee under the National Security Council. But a forecast is not enough.
The details, or what is called ‘operational’ intel, are vital. And that means intel on the date, time and persons involved. Stray inputs from the ground never reached upwards, nor did those that were already available get tied up.
Then Chidambaram Intervenes
Home Minister P Chidambaram, never one to miss an opportunity to expand his turf, took a hand to give the MAC the legal backing it needed to move ahead. The body not only began to meet daily, but its network grew steadily from 374 to 825 locations by 2019, through a dedicated, secure electronic network on two custom-built software platforms. These were an intelligence-sharing tool called ‘Threat Management System’ and a database tool called the ‘National Memory Bank’.
The idea was to take the whole apparatus right to the ground level, the Superintendent of Police; the vision was of a system where a police officer could use the database to quickly home into an incident or report it upwards in real-time. That was the intent, at least.
But, as before, the ground ‘level’, who prided themselves as the ‘operational’ folk, were often hostile to such sharing, saying (sometimes with justification) that ‘Delhi’ was miserly in its own sharing of data. Details such as interrogation reports and specificity were often missing, making the whole exercise a near academic process rather than a sharp operational tool. Besides, the network was dedicated to counter-terrorism, which is often not a priority for all states.
Intel & Internet: A Changed World
Meanwhile, the popular notion of smooth intel operators, beautiful women and lush foreign locations was rapidly being replaced by a barrage of technical intel gained from various airborne or other platforms, which included a formidable array of geospatial data, and, simply listening in.
Then came the explosion in terms of the vast highway that was the Internet. The first Cyber Security Coordinator was appointed in 2012, not strictly for intel, but to streamline the implementation of new laws in this difficult legal area. By then, the power of social media was only starting to get recognised. Otherwise fine officers were still talking of recruiting ‘computer savvy’ juniors.
The world had changed, and with it, the threat. Now, it was not just terrorist entities from Pakistan using Twitter to broadcast terrorist threats or ‘claims’ of attacks; it was also quite literally a whole world of information multipliers, some propagating Palestine, others Syria, or many just general hate, who collaborated and schemed to raise money for themselves and their violent backers.
That threat has expanded to include the immensely dangerous ‘weaponised disinformation’. For instance, remember the whole ‘outrage’ against an apparent hate campaign against Mohammad Shami, a much-loved cricketer? It actually never happened. The total ‘hate’ posts were about a dozen. The rest were ‘amplifiers’. Also consider the ongoing campaign on alleged fascism in India, which includes those who managed to bring together some 50-50 American universities for a meeting on “Dismantling Global Hindutva”. At a different level, a post-Ukraine and COVID world has to acknowledge that the worst threat may not be from terrorists at all – it could come from a sudden collapse of the economy, a breakdown of supply lines, or corruption.
Tech Is Great, But It Can't Replace Analysts
So, the upshot. Any upgrade to the MAC is highly welcome, and under Home Minister Amit Shah, it will have the impetus to reach the desired ground levels. The time, however, has come for the body to go beyond counter-terrorism, though that must always be central. It must also consider the diverse new threats that are shaping up, including economic predictions. For instance, the Russian attack on Ukraine was obviously going to affect energy prices. But the question is whether this knowledge was fed into the system early enough.
The collapse of Sri Lanka is another example. It is also hoped that the MAC itself will increase its strength. Technology is great. But in the end, it’s the man twiddling his pen over reams of data that is the most vital knight on the chessboard. Without dedicated analysts, the rest is just that, a game of rather wooden-headed players with limited movement. You win some, you’ll definitely lose some, or probably a lot. And most of all, share and share more, or risk losing it all.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)