Few can doubt the intentions of Union home minister P Chidambaram, as he prepares to present his case for setting up the National Counter Terrorism Centre at the meeting of chief ministers on Saturday. Isolated within his own cabinet and facing vehement opposition from the state governments who accuse him of weakening the republic’s federal structure, Chidambaram will have quite a fight on his hands.
But while his intentions are noble, perhaps his faith in the NCTC as an organisation that will cure all the ills currently plaguing our intelligence and counter-terrorism efforts are misplaced. Perhaps, had he studied the intelligence efforts that led to the 9/11 terrorist strike, he would have seen why the NCTC can never succeed in India.
In 1999, the National Security Agency, the US’s technical intelligence organisation, had intercepted considerable telephone chatter that indicated that al-Qaeda was up to something.
The information was quickly passed on to the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Centre, which was tasked with tracking all acts of terrorism against the US. The CTC was the precursor the NCTC that would be set up in 2004 by President George W Bush in a bid to improve their intelligence capabilities after 9/11.
After 9/11, the commission set up to investigate the ‘intelligence failure’ made a startling discovery. Sifting through the available facts, the commission chanced upon the intelligence inputs that had been passed on by the NSA to the CTC indicating that al-Qaeda was up to something. But the fact is, the CTC failed to connect the dots and worse, pass on the inputs to the other relevant agencies. This gave the terrorists the opportunity to infiltrate the US, travelling on valid, multiple-entry visas and start taking flying lessons for several months preceding the attack.
The CTC failed because the agency, which had members drawn from the CIA, the FBI, NSA and other intelligence organisations, did not pass on the information to the people who could have stopped the terrorists.
Intelligence is a complex profession where patterns have to be discerned from a mass of information in real time and acted upon. But a critical difference between the US and India is the fact that terrorist threats there are mostly foreign while here, New Delhi has to grapple with domestic terror outfits which may or may not have foreign linkages. This is a critical factor that will have a major bearing on any counter-terrorism efforts that India has to put in place.
Even a cursory reading of major terror attacks in India in the last two decades will show that most of them were carried out by domestic outfits. That means they are much more difficult to track and infiltrate as they merge easily with the local population. In such a scenario, federalism and its tenets becomes a critical aid in countering terror. This is so because law and order, as enshrined in the Constitution, is a state subject. While there should be an effort to improve the capabilities of the state police forces, a stopgap effort by creating another central agency will only mess up an already complicated situation.
Currently, India has nearly nine intelligence and counter-terrorism organisations working on counter-terrorism. How will the creation of a tenth agency that has little or no roots in the states, help improve counter-terrorism?
Further, what is being missed in the current debate on the NCTC is that the UPA’s cabinet was the first one to shoot down Chidambaram’s original vision of the NCTC as a massive, overarching organisation to be headed by a director-general rank officer that would subsume many other agencies like the NSG, NTRO, NIA and NATGRID, among others.
Instead, he has been given a broken down outfit that has been reduced to a small department within the IB. How this any different from the failed CTC in the US? Worse, by giving it powers of arrest under section 43 (a) and (b) of the Unlawful Activities Act, Chidambaram had reduced the IB from a central intelligence agency into just another police force. So will the IB officers who will man this NCTC now become police officers and seek arrest warrants, file charge-sheets or prosecute terrorists in an open court like any other police outfit?
So far, by maintaining anonymity, the IB was also a neutral arbiter between competing state police forces. It would quietly pass on its inputs and step back while the state police forces did all the dirty work. All that will change, making the IB compete with all other intelligence agencies and state police forces at a time when the ground is already prone to tremendous confusion.
The fact is NCTC is not a solution but an addition to the problem.
Today, the intelligence agencies in India need greater accountability to become more professional. They function outside the ambit of Parliament and in some case, like the external intelligence agency R&AW, don’t even have a dedicated political master. In such a scenario, the NCTC is all set to become another fancy acronym plodding along without a clue.