October 27, 2020
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An Idiot's Argument

' After 9/11, the US created its NCTC and, since, had no further terrorist attacks on its soil; ergo, we must have the NCTC, and there will be no further terrorist attacks in India as well.'

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An Idiot's Argument

Another Conference of Chief Ministers on Internal Security will be convened on June 5, 2013, this time in the shadow of the slaughter of political leaders and cadres at Darbha (Chhattisgarh) by the Maoists. A voluminous report on internal security has been ritually compiled by the union ministry of home affairs (UMHA), and will be circulated among participants— to what conceivable purpose, it is not clear, since it is unlikely to be read quite so quickly as to inform discussions during the Conference. A higher purpose is likely intended.

It is also not clear whether the UMHA will display the crass opportunism to push its long-standing effort to secure the approval of the Chief Ministers for its cherished National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC) on the specious grounds that the establishment of this grand edifice will help ‘prevent’ future Darbhas, but the centre has not been above such mean gambits in the past. It is useful, nevertheless, to recall that the establishment of the NCTC remains high among the political priorities of influential segments within the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and of the UMHA, and has been part of the agenda of earlier and important conferences on internal security. Indeed, this was at the core of the agenda of the earlier Conference of Chief Minsiters, on April 15, 2013, which, in a palpable snub to the UMHA, many invitees chose not to attend.


In the run-up to the April 15 Conference, union minister of home affairs Sushil Kumar Shinde, in his pitch for support to the NCTC, told the nation, after the proposed agency had purportedly been divested of all (operational) powers impinging on the Constitution’s federal principles, “There is nothing to oppose in the NCTC now.”

He was both right and wrong in ways he may not have intended. Right, because not even the terrorists and their state sponsors would find anything objectionable in the proposed NCTC, if ever they had any apprehensions with regard to this bogey— it is and has always been a paper tiger. Wrong, because all the efforts to bulldoze the NCTC through the opposition of the states and through Parliament, are no more than a pathetic charade intended to massage a few political egos and to project a false image of ‘responsiveness’ that adds nothing to counter-terrorism (CT) capabilities and, in fact, would result in their significant diminution in the near term. These considerations give ample reason to oppose the very idea of the NCTC as it is being applied to India.

This line of reasoning, explored repeatedly elsewhere in the past, is yet to find traction in political and public debate, where the promise of the NCTC, which, we are told, will be “like the US NCTC”, continues to seduce the majority of those who refuse to engage even in minimal due diligence to examine the realities of the US CT experience in the post 9/11 years.

Discussions on the proposed National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC), some with the fairly eminent, but most within relatively modest echelons of government and ‘civil society’, spike after each major terrorist attack, even as such incidents are cynically exploited by the centre to push its agenda to bring the NCTC project off the back burner, where it had rightly been pushed. The overwhelming thrust of much of the advocacy of the NCTC has, largely, been a fairly simple argument that can crudely be summarized as follows. After 9/11, the US created its NCTC and, since, had no further terrorist attacks on its soil; ergo, we must have the NCTC, and there will be no further terrorist attacks in India as well.

This is, to put it bluntly, an idiot’s argument.

Even before the Boston Marathon bombing, apart from the first proposition— that the US created NCTC after 9/11— every succeeding element of this argument is demonstrably false, and has been clearly falsified elsewhere. Yet, almost every discussion within the echelons of power— including the leaderships of the states where qualified opposition to the idea has been tentatively offered— begins with an unspoken premise that the NCTC is necessary, and that the only dispute is over its powers, structure and control. The exception to these discussions comes from actual practitioners— the more knowledgeable in the intelligence and enforcement establishment— many of whom (privately) admit that this new institution will do little, if anything, to improve operational capabilities.

The truth is, the proposed NCTC is worthless. It will not have even an iota of impact on the ground in terms of our CT or counter-insurgency (CI) responses. It is nothing but a vanity project that will pour thousands of crores (the initial budget was proposed at Rs 3,400 crores down the drain, so that a few politicians and bureaucrats can acquire boasting rights for having created this new ‘national institution’,  just as some currently brag about having established the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The NIA is another white elephant that has cannibalized existing resources to create a structure that was rammed through Parliament in the hysteria that followed the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, as an urgent necessity and counter-terrorist ‘giant killer’, and that has had (and could be expected to have) no demonstrable impact on national vulnerabilities to terrorism.

Nevertheless, the argument— that the NCTC in the US has ‘succeeded’ in neutralizing, or substantially mitigating, the threat of terrorism and is, consequently, a suitable model for emulation— demands independent assessment. Broadly, the contention here is that the US NCTC was neither a necessary nor a sufficient part of the relative success in mitigating the threat of terrorism on US soil, and the sheer magnitude and range of American CT initiatives and the quantum of resources dedicated to these tasks, in the wake of 9/11 offer no useful paradigm for imitation or emulation for a country at the stage of development, and of institutional atrophy, such as India.

It is not the intention, here, to assess the desirability, legality or morality of US actions; merely to outline the scale of what has been done in terms of CT since 9/11.

The US has launched two wars on grounds of neutralizing the terrorist apparatus abroad; it has hunted down, arrested and killed terrorist leaders across the world, with little concern for international law, due process or rights; it has neutralized threats where they arise, by all means available.

Domestically, it has dismantled the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) elaborate, but supposedly flawed, national criminal database system and installed a new system, Sentinel, at an initial cost of USD 305 million and several subsequent cost overruns. Before this, an earlier post-9/11 overhaul of the database, costing hundreds of millions of dollars failed. It has brought in vast counter-terrorism legislation, many elements of which are deemed constitutionally suspect; indeed, even within the sphere of domestic enforcement, Washington has wilfully trampled over numerous provisions of the country’s Constitution, and has contemptuously violated every principal of international law in its adventures abroad.

US agencies have hunted down the country’s enemies at home and abroad with no limitation of resource or legal restraint. Hundreds have been killed in drone strikes in a multiplicity of theatres across the world, and the President has, himself, signed the warrants for these ‘executive actions’— something no Indian political leader would dare even imagine. Hundreds of others have been detained and subjected to “enhanced interrogation”— or, simply, torture— or have been handed over to other countries for torture through the illegal ‘extraordinary rendition’ system. Critics note that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been turned into a “paramilitary force”, with ‘special operations’ exhausting an increasing proportion of its resources, as against its original mandate of intelligence gathering. The Bush Administration maintained elaborate ‘kill lists’, something the Obama Administration now euphemistically calls the “Disposition Matrix”; the essence remains the same; these are lists of individuals to be hunted and killed without judicial process and on executive order, wherever they may be found. “American citizens may be listed as targets for killing” in the Disposition Matrix.

It is the cumulative impact of these and many other initiatives that has resulted in the US’ partial CT success. As the present Director of the CIA, John O. Brennnan, in his earlier tenure as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, noted, these successes were the “direct result of intense efforts made over more than a decade, across two administrations, across the US government, and in concert with allies and partners... In this fight, we are harnessing every element of American power: intelligence, military, diplomatic, development, economic, financial, law enforcement, homeland security...”

To pretend that India has the capacity— or, indeed, even the desire— to replicate this ‘model’ of CT response is delusional in the extreme. And to believe that the creation of a new office in Delhi called NCTC will create capabilities that are even remotely comparable to the gigantic US CT complex is nothing less than unadulterated stupidity.

It is useful, further, to notice that institutional transformation in post-9/11 USA are not limited to creating a peripheral new office as an adjunct to some existing department. The sheer enormity of institutional transformations is difficult for us even to imagine as we struggle for years to set up a functional Multi Agency Centre; or a national database of crimes and criminals; or even to recruit roughly 8,000 people to fill up the 30 per cent of long-pending vacancies in a tiny Intelligence Bureau (IB) that has a current strength of about 18,795. The Polnet project for a unified police satellite communications network that was to link all police stations in India, was sanctioned in 1996, and is still floundering. The Government has now reconceptualised another comparable initiative under the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) project, but four years after its sanction in June 2009, there is no indication that even rudimentary questions of software and hardware architecture have been settled.

Though no comprehensive analysis or assessment of these is possible here, it is useful, by comparison, to look at some of the institutional transformations and augmentations the US security apparatus has undergone in the interim. A detailed study by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin in the Washington Post in July 2010 noted that “at least 263 organisations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11”. Further, the study notes,

  • Some 1,271 government organisations and 1,931private companies work on programmes related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the US.
  • An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, DC, hold top-secret security clearances.
  • In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together, they occupy the equivalent of three Pentagons... about 17 million square feet of space.
  • The 2009 US Intelligence budget, as publicly disclosed, was USD 75 billion, but did not include many military activities and domestic CT programmes.

This dramatic augmentation has resulted in many preventive successes, but there have been failures as well. Despite the massive flows of intelligence— and partially because of them— specific intelligence relating to individual suspects have been neglected or lost in the deluge. “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases.” The same process is replicated in a multiplicity of other intelligence agencies, “none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.” With all the capacity augmentation, there is still a deficit in terms of capabilities to trawl through the intelligence flows to identify and respond to actionable intelligence.

Priest and Arkin conclude,

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

It is not the intention, here, to suggest that Priest and Arkin’s critical assessment is correct, or to make an independent assessment of how effective or otherwise the massive US expenditure and institutional and legislative innovation has been. Only to demonstrate that, to the extent that the US has been successful in its CT campaigns, both domestically and abroad, the NCTC has played, at best a minor role in policy formulation and coordination. It is not the NCTC, but the massive global and domestic capacities and campaigns that have made America safer— and the US is already much better safeguarded by geography, population profiles, the quality of governance and institutions, and its infinitely better ordered and wealthy society.

It is only the intellectual dishonesty and political opportunism of the national discourse, the gullibility of the media, and the sheer indolence of those who pretend to ‘expertise’, that have allowed the idea of the NCTC to germinate and take root as a ‘solution’ to the challenges of terrorism and insurgency in the Indian context. Far more urgent imperatives of capacity building in existing institutions and the completion of numberless essential projects already in the pipeline are competing for national attention and resources, and have been buried away in this wasteful and directionless debate on a worthless and irrelevant copycat initiative. It is time to bring this farce to a final end and to give the idea of an Indian NCTC a quick, not necessarily decent, burial

Courtesy:  the South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR) of the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, ICM & SATP.

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