Wikileaks and new information about the blanket and widespread snooping by NSA of cyber mail of millions have raised serious concerns about privacy of individuals. New programmes like Tempora and Prism enable the GCHQ of the UK and NSA of the US to access underground cables and intercept petabytes of information. More important, the capability to store this information has been developed now. Experts calculate that now all books, manuscripts, journals in the British Library can be transferred to computers within minutes. In the UK, a demand is being made to review existing legislation on oversight in the light of the new technology which has greatly enlarged capacities of snooping, affecting the citizen’s right to privacy. Changes in Intelligence Services Act of 1994 which provide for Parliamentary oversight of intelligence services have been suggested.
Unlike advanced countries, intelligence services in India continue to function on the basis of executive orders, which in the case of the Intelligence Bureau was issued by the British in the 19th century. No government has seen it fit to give serious thought and consideration to give a legal basis to our agencies and an oversight mechanism. A private members’ Bill was presented in Lok Sabha last year for Parliamentary oversight and a writ has been filed in the Supreme Court by an NGO seeking the court’s intervention, which is pending.
The situation exposes the gross anomaly of all employees of intelligence agencies in the country functioning without legal backing. Whatever they do has no legal sanction whereas the older established democracies have given their intelligence employees the right to carry out surveillance, intercept all communication after obtaining proper sanctions in each specific case and carry out such tasks as are necessitated by the requirements of their work. The need for legal sanction is necessary and will give the departments much needed functional freedom. Presently they suffer a serious handicap. Firstly, a law will need to be passed defining the role, objectives and responsibility of each intelligence organisation. The structure and hierarchy have been laid out in legislation made by other countries. The oversight mechanism can either be enacted in this piece of legislation itself or be covered by a separate Act. In the UK, the intelligence services have been formed under the Intelligence Services Act and oversight is regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. While the former was enacted in 1994, the latter was passed in 2000. In the US, the Senate has a permanent committee overseeing intelligence matters which also makes recommendations on appointments in CIA, the external intelligence wing. Till 9/11, the US had no department for internal intelligence. Now a department of Homeland Security looks after that.
Every state in the country has its own intelligence setup in the form of CID Special Branch. All those who work in the CID(SB) are policemen and are covered by the Police Act. They are required to gather intelligence about social and labour unrest, agitations of farmers, traders, students, government employees. A whole range of other issues, including communal situation, insurgent groups, terrorism, is covered as well. The CID is also provided with funds. In the past the funds were meagre; there has been substantial increase of late. A mechanism to monitor their utilisation is also called for. The first step has to be taken at the Central level. Legislation to give legal cover to our intelligence services is overdue. To become a strong democracy in which citizens’ rights are sacrosanct and workings of executive transparent, a parliamentary oversight of intelligence is imperative.
The writer is a former chief of the Intelligence Bureau.