THE role and obligation of an intelligence agency have acquired an important dimension and concern in the wake of the trial and conviction of the top bosses of the country's apex intelligence agencies in the arms haul case. A defense strategist has reminded us of such agency's obligation to the state and impressed upon the imperative of accurate and objective analysis of various national issues. The matter demands attention for charting out remedial measures.
One would like to dwell upon the role and function of our intelligence agencies that without doubt are very sensitive organizations, and on account of their very secret nature few would like a free and frank discourse on their modus operandi. Present day security experts are, however, of the view that open discussion by competent and concerned persons may in fact rationalise the operations of such organisations to the benefit of a democratic polity.
One has to remember that intelligence bosses enjoy privileged access to the top political executive, the prime minister and the home minister. The agencies provide direction to police organisations in addition to providing political-analytical inputs to the ruling regimes. The agencies have undertaken strategic exercises during elections, and conduct election forecasts and analyses to oblige the party in power.
It has been our unfortunate experience to witness that far from being confined to the proper intelligence role, over-zealous bosses became almost confidantes of the chief executive, adept at every task entrusted to them. There are events to believe the truly political role of the crucial intelligence organ of our State. The important lesson to be learnt is that politicisation or lack of impartiality and objectivity in intelligence reporting can distort the policy process and thus damage the credibility and political legitimacy of the State. Is it not time that we know if our intelligence organs enjoy the benefit of a legal framework and a well-honed charter of duties? The political leadership have to perhaps decide whether they and the country stand to benefit if intelligence agencies are made to function in a political manner.
Facts, admittedly, are disconcerting. Intelligence apparently faltered when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his immediate family members and other near relations were murdered in the most gruesome manner. Similarly, intelligence could not prevent the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman.
We had the unfortunate experience of witnessing a very sensitive intelligence organisation working principally for the whims and caprices of a virtual dictator and using public funds for creating and destabilising political parties, political horse-trading and shadowing people on personal and flimsy grounds in mid to late eighties. No wonder, in such a scenario, professional efficiency was sacrificed and public servants turned into personal servants with the attendant ignominy.
The unpleasant truth is that intelligence agencies maintain files and shadow the leaders and workers of pronouncedly constitutional politics-oriented parties belonging to the opposition who are recognised partners in the business of politics. At some point of time, when such opposition party comes to power, there is an uneasy relationship between the political masters and the agencies. In such a scenario, professionalism becomes the worst casualty, sense of direction is lost and the organisation dips into a lackadaisical environment and interests of the state take a back seat, giving greater space to partisan considerations. It needs to be kept in mind that the values of a democratic polity are universal and as such demand unconditional adherence to them.
The national agency is expected to be able to effectively serve national interests if directed appropriately by the political authority. If they (agency) have to remain preoccupied with largely inconsequential partisan matters to the detriment of national interest, then we will not be able to manage a crisis situation, not to speak of forestalling the tragedies of recent times. We have been criticising the agencies very loudly without, however, appreciating the impediments to the growth of an apolitical professional organisation. Time has come when we must have the honesty to call a spade a spade and realise that governments will change hands but not the state.
An intelligence agency should not be the judge of its own operations with regard to the necessity and propriety thereof, nor should it be allowed to operate as the agency or instrument of politicians, or degenerate into an institution for controlling opponents of the party in power, or elements within the party in power with which the high command of the party does not see eye to eye. There must be inbuilt constraints.
At the heart of the matter, there should be a prescription for a charter of duties for the intelligence organ, putting responsibilities beyond doubt, and to indicate what is permitted and what is prohibited.
The legitimate purpose of intelligence should be to anticipate developments that may imperil national interests so as to enable appropriate action with the imperative that any effort to equate national interest with party interest should be guarded against. Once the purpose is known, the chances of non-observance of fairness and objectivity in intelligence collection will be reduced. Constant vigilance against misuse will be needed as intelligence activities are carried on in secrecy.
The catch-all definition of 'national security' should not be used as a cover to hide a multitude of abuses. It should exclude activities that in effect mean denial of human rights and basic freedoms. The vague and antiquated formulations of colonial days relating to intelligence function should be replaced by: (i) clear and firm guidelines on the limits to the organisation's authority; (ii) the area of its coverage; (iii) the manner of functioning; (iv) the permissible methods; (v) laying standards for the evaluation of the credibility of its sources of information; (vi) measures for enforcing accountability to the executive and legislature; (vii) means of controlling and overseeing the operations.
A detailed and precisely honed charter for the intelligence organs in consonance with the spirit of the constitution needs to be worked out.
Our intelligence organisation needs to work under pragmatic political leadership, and if properly and professionally steered it will not threaten our liberties. If we operate by the book, we will be adequately informed of the perils which face us. The last thing we can afford to do now is to put our intelligence in chains. Its protective and informative role is indispensable in times of unique and continuing violence.
The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.