- The Pegasus-spyware conundrum being played out over the last week or so raises some pertinent questions as regards the functioning of the intelligence and security agencies. As the cyberwarfare gains unbridled ascendancy in breaching the digital defenses erected by countries, increasingly aggressive roles essayed by these agencies acting on behalf of the ruling dispensation and political masters also attract scrutiny from concerned stakeholders. No wonder, the political slugfest continues to disturb the monsoon session of the Parliament over reports of opposition leaders, journalists, critics, and others targeted for carrying out surveillance. Justifiably so.
- Amidst this controversy comes reports about a Congress MP reviving private members’ bill to give legal backing and Parliamentary oversight to intelligence and security agencies, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Intelligence Bureau (IB), and National Technical Research Organization (NTRO). The idea, first mooted by the MP in 2011, is not only excellent in terms of addressing the issue of credibility and neutrality governing the day-to-day operations of these agencies but also merits cross-party support without a question being asked. It is amply clear that the ruling dispensation often uses these agencies to target opposition parties and leadership under one pretext or the other leading to cries of harassment from the affected lot.
- Such calls are not unfounded as the executive control ensures the agencies, though some like the Central Bureau of Intelligence is fallaciously termed as autonomous, often toe the line of the former in following questionable instructions. Remember not so long back, no less than the Supreme Court famously termed the CBI as a caged parrot for carrying out the bidding of the ruling dispensation. Therefore, these agencies need to be accountable to the public through the legislature, rather than report to the executive alone. You would be surprised that the IB set up in 1887 through an administrative order by a British official to this day has no constitutional or statutory backing or even a formal charter, apart from law in 1985 restricting some of its rights.
PC: HT Correspondent
- Simply put, there is no independent oversight or external scrutiny or for that matter, the agency’s remit on a range of actions permitted vis-à-vis the minister it reports to, and protections for its director. In the absence of institutional safeguards, the officials will be constrained from refusing unreasonable instructions forthcoming from the political executive. No one is calling for security and intelligence organizations to forego secrecy which is essential to the fundamental functionality of the agencies. However, safeguards to prevent illegal or dubious practices are important in a democratic country like ours.
- The unambiguous demarcation between public duties and information-gathering as enunciated in the Constitution should be adhered to. Note that oversight safeguards including congressional scrutiny as well as Parliamentary committees are established in several mature countries without compromising on the secrecy elements. They also stay well within the defined boundaries of the charter of duties as well. Thus, reestablishing beaten credibility and neutrality of intelligence agencies’ is crucial since the former’s enormous new powers of surveillance as also the prevalent political polarization and mutual distrust call for proactive measures like oversight safeguards. Will the ruling dispensation byte the bullet? Only time will tell.