Giuseppe Mazzini eagerly opened his mail and carefully searched the envelopes for poppy seeds and grains of sand. There were none. The great Republican agitator and journalist, father of a united Italian nation, enemy of the European aristocracy, had just denounced the first biggest surveillance scandal in the modern world. The British Imperial Secret Police, acting at the request of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, had read Mazzini’s correspondence. The missing poppy seeds, planted inside the envelopes by Mazzini himself, blew up their operation.
As India grapples with revelations that its government – and those of nine other countries – may have spied on politicians, journalists and human rights activists, the Mazzini scandal of 1844 offers important lessons on the dangers to constitutional democracies of illegal intelligence operations.
For generations, in all countries, governments have argued that such surveillance is necessary to defend the state against subversion and terrorism. Experience, however, has shown that the lack of democratic control over espionage degrades intelligence services and undermines the states they seek to defend.
There are three reasons why government opacity does not serve the interests of the state, intelligence services, or Indian citizens. Instead, it should be an opportunity – however, embarrassing for political leaders – to establish democratic oversight and standards for intelligence services.
First, the use of NSO’s services demonstrates that India’s technical espionage capabilities are anemic, the result of decades of poor leadership and planning. NSO’s services have been hired by countries like Azerbaijan, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia, which lack significant technological resources, and not by major nation states.
New Delhi has long understood that it has to catch up, but the results have not been rosy. In 2018-2019, the government significantly increased the budget of the National Security Council to Rs 841.73 crore, of which Rs 715.89 crore was to be invested in communication and intelligence projects by Indian tech start-ups. The money, however, has not been spent for the most part.
Knowing that all but a few projects would likely fail, bureaucrats refused to approve the high-risk spending, fearing further criminal investigations and investigations. For 2019-2020, the budget of the National Security Council has been reduced to Rs 152 crore.
India has turned to vendors like NSO, revealing its own vulnerabilities. On the one hand, there is no way to know whether NSO has hijacked data – or products – from Indian operations to other clients or intelligence services. More damaging still, India’s lack of independent offensive capabilities suggests a similar lack of defensive capabilities. In other words, India has few means to monitor and detect attacks on communications of its senior officials by foreign intelligence services.
These vulnerabilities are not abstract. In 2019, it was discovered that North Korean hackers were stealing Indian nuclear secrets. The hacker targeted the laptops used by the former head of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, Anil Kakodkar, and the former head of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Council, SA Bhardwaj.
Correcting these vulnerabilities is not impossible, but it will not happen due to the institutionalization of a system of perverse incentives, the second key problem facing intelligence. Instead, politicians have been seduced by the temptation to illegally use the Secret Service as a tool against opponents, primarily to collect gossip of no conceivable strategic value. This is also suitable for leaders of the intelligence community, for whom gossip and political intrigue is a means of garnering influence from national leaders.
The problem dates back decades. In 1963, for example, the Intelligence Bureau ordered the Gujarat police to open surveillance against the Swatantra Party, a right-wing party opposed to the ruling Congress. In response to questions from the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Balwantrai Mehta, the Union Minister of the Interior replied that it was necessary to monitor people “who usually oppose the policies of the government of the day”.
From the 1970s, the role of the Intelligence Bureau in political surveillance – often of questionable legality – gradually expanded, with successive directors of the Intelligence Bureau becoming involved in government efforts to undermine opponents.
These operations were to bring considerable discredit to the Intelligence Bureau during the 1955-1977 state of emergency. The LP Singh committee, set up to reflect on reforms, is still secret but has reportedly neither attributed personal responsibility for violations of the law by the intelligence services, nor measures to reform these organizations. Wiretapping scandals have been a regular and depressing feature of India’s political scandal; Pegasus’ presentation marks the deepening of this toxic quagmire.
As a result, the Intelligence Bureau continues to devote a substantial part of its resources to gathering political intelligence. This moves away from the resources already requested. The government has committed Rs 2,575 crore funding to the organization for 2019-2020, which is less than a third, for example, of Rs 7,497 allocated to Delhi Police alone. A tiny fraction of that – Rs 83.5 crore – will be available for capital investment.
The resources of the Intelligence Office contrast sharply with those of the main Western intelligence agencies; the Federal Bureau of Investigations, with a much smaller role, has requested $ 9.6 billion in funding for fiscal 2020.
In 2013, Parliament was informed that some 8,000 positions within the organization were vacant, out of an authorized workforce of 26,867. Things have not changed much. Although it is difficult to estimate precise figures, out of around thirty officials at the level of joint directors (the critical level of the higher executive authority), only nine operate in areas of national security such as the fight against terrorism. .
Experts have long understood these problems. As the highly regarded bureaucrat NN Vohra noted, there is also no “mechanism to assess the productivity of our two umbrella intelligence agencies.” In an article, current National Security Advisor Ajit Doval called for a debate to shape “new doctrines, suggest structural changes, aim for value for money, and consider the administrative and legislative changes needed to empower people. intelligence agencies ”. None of this has been done.
The third problem, and the key to solving the first two, is the most important: the misuse of the state’s espionage capabilities against citizens threatens the regime itself. Governments in democracies have imposed legislative oversight and accountability on intelligence services. Their intelligence services are among the best in the world, but not tools of despotism, as in China, Russia or Saudi Arabia.
Following the revelation of the Mazzini scandal, MEPs noted that the unbridled surveillance of the intelligence services had eroded trust in society, the cornerstone of politics. In addition, they limited the positive impact of the revolutionary technology, the penny postage system which had for the first time allowed transparent and private communication across the UK. Lord Chief Justice Robert Denham approved, attacking the state for breach of privacy without just cause.
Then-Home Secretary James Graham backed down: In a nation beset by mass working-class movements and political radicalism, unrestricted intelligence gathering was needed. This is the same argument as the one advanced today, but it entails significant costs.
India’s intelligence status quo perpetuates the worst possible worlds, providing a haven for incompetence and criminality, deterring reform, and subverting national institutions. Little attention: Former labor minister Manish Tewari, who introduced a private member’s bill to provide oversight, has been ignored by his own party, let alone the government. The real revelation from Pegasus is this: Indian intelligence is in a state of dangerous crisis, which threatens our republic.
—Praveen Swami is Group Advisory Editor, Network18.