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May 1, 2010

The new agency in town

Soon after the audacious 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram announced the formation of National Investigation Agency (NIA) as the  central counter-terrorism law enforcement agency of India. Modelled after the FBI, the NIA is claimed to be “not merely a post-incident investigating agency, but also a pre-incident disruption agency.”

However this has led to considerable unease amongst the rank and file of various other central and state counter-terrorism agencies—Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Intelligence Bureau (IB), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the specialised state Anti-Terrorism Squads (ATS). A large number of questions have been raised by the sceptics about the exact role of NIA, its status vis-à-vis the others, availability of trained staff and access to archival intelligence. There have been fears that the new agency will undermine the established ones. Indeed, there is a school of thought that holds that the formation of the NIA only adds another player to the already established intelligence setup in India, making the inter-agency bureaucratic wars even murkier; and instead, it would have been far more prudent to strengthen the existing agencies with better resources—logistical, technical, economical and staffing.

It must be noted that other than offences of terrorism, the NIA will also deal with counterfeit currency, human trafficking, narcotics or drug, organised crime, aircraft hijacking, violations of the Atomic Energy Act and the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act. The agency is under greater public scrutiny due to the circumstances and the promises surrounding its formation. It is currently handling eight cases, the most important among them being the case of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Rana. Although it has not secured any major breakthrough in any of the eight cases, the home minister is believed to be promoting the fledgeling agency as the lead investigator in all terror-related incidents. The challenge for the agency is to sustain, survive and succeed not on the personal support of the incumbent home minister but on its own merit in the future.

As a new agency, the NIA is not yet staffed to its authorised strength. At present all the officials with the NIA are on deputation and any new recruitment in the near future will also have to be on deputation from the central agencies or the state police forces. Even the CBI, which also draws its staff from officers on deputation from various services, is operating 35 percent below strength. In particular it is suffering from chronic shortages among its senior officers and investigators.

The situation in most state police departments is no better. Due to an acute shortage of manpower in the parent cadres, the states are not willing to spare their better officers, leave alone their best ones, for the NIA. The founder NIA chief had requisitioned over a dozen officers from various Crime Bureaus months ago but that request has not yet been fully met.

Tthe government can overcome this crisis by exercising the option of enforced deputation with the NIA. It must be mandatory for all central and state agencies, with the exception of the IB and R&AW, to depute a few selected officers of special skill sets from selected branches and district headquarters to the NIA. This will allow the latter to gain a local foothold, which is essential for gathering intelligence using local human intelligence sources. These officers will also serve as bridges between the NIA and the Anti-Terrorist Squads of various state police forces.

Deputation, however, can only be a temporary measure to get the agency up and running at the earliest. To fulfil its mission, the NIA must recruit directly.

Both the IB and the R&AW have an enviable pool of resources, archives, access and processes required for gathering intelligence within and outside the country. To make the system optimally effective, the government must centralise and co-ordinate intelligence input. While the IB and R&AW can continue doing they are best at—gathering intelligence—the NIA, empowered by a special act and the power to prosecute can play an important role in ensuring speedy trials and higher rates of convictions. As the NIA matures over a period of time, one of its wings must be dedicated to strengthening the intrinsic intelligence-gathering ability of the agency.

It is no secret that India’s top two intelligences agencies—the IB & R&AW—have been in severe competition with each other. The entry of the NIA as another player into this turf war will further complicate matters. To manage this dynamic, the government must put in place an institutionalised arrangement where selected NIA officers are allowed access to the libraries of RAW and the IB. Providing access to these libraries will result in sharing of intelligence inputs such as the voice samples, marked telephone numbers under surveillance, dossiers on terrorists, gangsters, money launderers and other suspects, technical and scientific infrastructure, network of selective informants in the remotest parts of the country, and other databanks. This access must be provided at least until the NIA establishes, equips and populates its own archives sufficiently.

Now, for both professional and organisational reasons, it is unlikely that any agency would easily be willing to share its archives with another. As unrestricted access would be practically impossible, specialised IB and R&AW officials must train selected NIA officials.

Although the total fund allocation for the NIA is still to be declassified, reports suggest that approximately Rs 400-500 million have been allocated on an annual basis. Even as large budgetary allocations are a necessity in these initial years, the government must ensure that these finances are used judiciously to deliver better results. The NIA must ensure that these funds are utilised to provide the agency with a logistically, technically and scientifically sound basis in the formative years.

There are many challenges—from bureaucratic turf wars to the fight for resources—for a new agency like the NIA before it can carve a niche for itself. As it is considered as the home minister’s pet project, it should be able to overcome a lot of these challenges. The final benchmarks of its success, however, will be performance and delivery.


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