Spies walk in from the cold
Our Roving Editor
New Delhi, December 26
They are being taken out of the closets, ‘dusted’ and put on the job that they had been doing for long before retirement. Also, capable officers and men are being sourced from the police, armed forces and paramilitary organisations for human, electronic and technical surveillance.
India’s newest secret agency — the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) — operating under the Prime Minister’s Office has been given a massive assignment to tab Pakistan, Bangadesh and China’s imagery and communications intelligence, using various platforms, including satellites.
Yes, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (November 26-29) have shaken the Indian domestic and foreign intelligence gathering agencies so much that they are now trying to set their house in order.
Intelligence agencies have become conscious of their inadequacies and of the gaps in their knowledge. The ‘new terrorism’ is demanding a revamped intelligence apparatus at the national level and a reinforced co-operation mechanism at the regional and international levels.
Foreign spy agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and domestic espionage organisation, Intelligence Bureau, have realised that they lack enough ‘HUMINT’ — human intelligence — assets to prevent Mumbai like incidents.
Both RAW and IB are finding it difficult to develop ‘moles’ in the Pakistani system, especially the terrorist groups operating from across the border. “This is because we still do not play much the game of penetration in the enemy ranks,” a highly placed IB officer said, observing that “it is easier to penetrate the sensitive establishments of an adversary state than a terrorist organisation.”
The Mumbai episode has added urgency to the intelligence gathering agencies to develop human intelligence at a larger scale. Not only RAW and IB, economic and other espionage agencies have also been asked to enlarge their base.
Even those men who retired about a decade ago have been contacted with offer to rejoin ‘the company’ again at the rank and salary that they would have been having at this stage. Some of them have refused as they are well-placed in private jobs and it would be difficult for them to disappear again in the world of shadows.
But there are many who have happily given their consent to be back in the field. A senior officer, who retired recently, has been re-hired in one of the spy agencies. Then there are men who have been asked to operate under the cover of their private jobs. New stations are being opened in sensitive cities and border states.
In the NTRO, a preference is being given to those who have a flair for gathering technical intelligence. Many officers from the air force and army’s signal corps have been taken on deputation.
Operating as an ‘allied’ organisation of RAW, the NTRO is trying to develop itself on the lines of America’s National Security Agency (NSA), which is one of the most secretive members of the US intelligence community.
The NTRO’s mandate is not to affect the working of technical wings of various intelligence agencies, including those of armed forces. The NTRO has been instructed to emerge as a super-feeder agency for providing technical intelligence to other agencies on internal and external security.
America has the most sophisticated ‘SIGINT’ (signals intelligence) assets in the world. These assets include spy satellites and planes. These assets are also being used to detect terrorists by intercepting their phone, computer, e-mail and radio communications.
In the Mumbai attacks, the gunmen used technology to gain a tactical advantage. They reportedly carried Blackberries, CDs holding high-resolution satellite images like those used for Google Earth maps, and multiple cell phones with switchable SIM cards that would be hard to track.
Using satellite phones, the gunmen communicated with their leaders abroad, calling voice-over-Internet-protocol phone numbers, making them harder to trace. This was terrorism in digital age.
Like American, Indian intelligence experts are, however, realising that the technological assets still cannot replace the importance of human intelligence assets. Human operatives are still needed to infiltrate and uncover the plans of terrorist groups.
Spending on intelligence gathering through human resources has substantially declined in the militarily powerful western nations in past one decade. But more resources are now being directed toward to improve ‘human intelligence’ devoted to combat terrorists.
Indian agencies, especially RAW, are good in technical intelligence. But after realising that they now have to have ‘specific intelligence’ about terrorism activities -not vague as the country came to know after the Mumbai attacks - RAW and IB have gone for the ‘recruitment drive’ to enroll retired experienced men for field and desk jobs. Specialists are much in demand.
“The idea is to substantially increase the number of new sources reporting on terrorism as the job of tracking terrorists is not becoming easier,” a RAW source said.
Despite this, experts point out that failures there have been and failures there will be. No intelligence agency in the world, whatever are its human and material resources and its technical and technological capability, can claim or hope to be all-knowing. “What is required,” as an old guard put it, “There is need to reduce the gap between failures and success.”