This newspaper on July 9, 2011 editorially commented that when state agencies step out of their defined terms of reference, the resultant sociopolitical scenario becomes dismal. It cautioned the authorities to take note of the issue of employment, direction and control of intelligence agencies in public interest. In retrospect, this newspaper's premonitions proved very credible when one reads the judgment of the case relating to the 21st August 2004 grenade attack on Awami League rally, in which heads of two national intelligence agencies have been awarded capital punishment for their alleged illegal, conspiratorial and ignominious role in facilitating the gory occurrences.
Since the legal process of the incident under reference has not been judicially exhausted, this writer cannot comment on the adjudication procedure. What, however, is of concern is the absence of an informed discourse on the role and function of our intelligence agencies that without doubt are very sensitive organisations; and on account of its very secret nature, few would like a free and frank discourse on its modus operandi. Present-day security experts are, however, of the considered view that open discussion by competent and concerned persons may in fact rationalise the operations of such an organisation to the benefit of a democratic polity.
Historically speaking, the growing need for internal political intelligence felt by the British colonial authorities in the context of the increasing militancy of the freedom struggle was the key to the rapid development of intelligence-gathering assests at the centre and provincial levels. The intelligence branch's work then included coverage of terrorism and subversive activities, political movements, communal violence, the communist movement, and the activities of inimical powers beyond the borders. On the basis of information collected, it made an overall assessment for the formulation of government policy.
Intelligence-gathering has been no less important in our independent political existence. As in many other countries, the 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 conducted election forecasts and analyses for the party in power.
Events of the recent past in Bangladesh indicate that far from being confined to the proper intelligence role, overzealous bosses became almost a confidante of the chief executive, adept at every task entrusted to them. There are reasons 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 government.
One may ask if it is time to know whether our intelligence organs enjoy the benefit of a legal framework and a well-honed charter of duties. It may also be relevant to know if the country stands to benefit when intelligence agencies are made to function in a political manner.
Facts, admittedly, are disconcerting. Intelligence apparently faltered when the father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with most of his immediate family members and other near relations were murdered in the most gruesome manner. Similarly, intelligence could not prevent subsequent assassinations.
We had the unfortunate experience of witnessing a very sensitive intelligence organisation working principally at the whims and caprices of a military 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 80s. No wonder in such a scenario the professional efficiency was sacrificed and public servants turned into personal retainers.
The mission and strategy of our intelligence organisations have not been stable at least insofar as the domestic threat perception is concerned. They invariably change with the change of a political government. Differing political agendas often tend to cloud the pragmatic understanding of our real national interests.
The unpleasant truth is that intelligence agencies maintain file and shadow the leaders and workers of 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 it.
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 the 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.
There should be a charter of duties for the intelligence organ, with well-defined responsibilities and area of operation. The purpose for which intelligence has to be collected should be clearly spelt out. It should not be to sub-serve the interests of a political party or an individual or to blackmail or control the opponents of the political party in power or hostile elements within the establishment.
The legitimate purpose of intelligence should be to anticipate developments that may imperil national interests so as to enable appropriate action, and any effort to equate national interest with party interest should be discouraged. 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.
A detailed and precisely honed charter for the intelligence organ 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 at a time of unique and continuing violence.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.