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, the enemy of Europe’s aristocracy—had just exposed the first greatest surveillance scandal of the modern world. Imperial British secret police, acting at the request of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, had been reading Mazzini’s correspondence. The missing poppy seeds, planted inside the envelopes by Mazzini himself, blew apart their operation.
As India grapples with revelations its government—and those of nine other countries—may have been spying on politicians, journalists and human rights activists, the Mazzini scandal of 1844 holds out important lessons to the dangers held out to constitutional democracies by illegal intelligence operations.
For generations, across countries, governments have argued that such surveillance is necessary to defend the State from subversion and terrorism. Experience, though, has shown lack of democratic oversight over espionage degrades the intelligence services and undermines the States they are seeking to defend.
There are three reasons why the Government’s opacity doesn’t serve the interests of either the State, the intelligence services, or Indian citizens. Instead, this ought to be an occasion—however, embarrassing for political leaders—to establish democratic oversight and norms for the intelligence services.
First, the use of NSO’s services demonstrates India’s technical espionage capabilities are anaemic—the outcome of decades of poor leadership and planning. NSO’s services were hired by countries like Azerbaijan, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia, which lack significant technological resources, not major nation-states.
New Delhi has long understood it needs to catch up—but the results haven’t been roseate. In 2018-2019, the Government drastically increased the National Security Council’s budget to Rs 841.73 crore, Rs 715.89 crore of which was to be invested in communications-intelligence projects by Indian technology start-ups. The money, though, mostly went unspent.
Knowing all but a few projects would likely fail, bureaucrats refused to sign off on the high-risk spending, fearing subsequent inquiries and criminal investigations. For 2019-2020, the National Security Council’s budget was slashed back to Rs 152 crore.
India turned to vendors like NSO—in the process revealing its own vulnerabilities. For one, there’s no way of telling whether NSO diverted data—or product—from Indian operations to other clients or intelligence services. Even more damaging, India’s lack of independent offensive capabilities suggests a similar lack of defensive capability. In other words, India has few means to monitor, and detect, attacks on the communications of its top officials by foreign intelligence services.
These vulnerabilities are not abstract. In 2019, North Korean hackers were discovered to have been stealing Indian nuclear secrets. The hacker targeted laptops used by former Bhabha Atomic Research Centre chief Anil Kakodkar and former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board head SA Bhardwaj.
Fixing these vulnerabilities isn’t impossible—but won’t happen because of the institutionalisation of a system of perverse incentives, the second key issue confronting intelligence. Instead, politicians have been seduced by the temptation to illegally use the covert services as a tool against opponents, in the main to harvesting gossip of no conceivable strategic value. This also suits the intelligence community’s leadership, for whom political gossip and intrigue is a means to harvest influence with the national leadership.
The problem is decades old. In 1963, for example, the Intelligence Bureau ordered the Gujarat Police to initiate surveillance against the Swatantra Party, a right-wing formation opposed to the ruling Congress. In response to queries from Gujarat chief minister Balwantrai Mehta, the Union Home Minister responded that watch had to be kept over persons “who habitually opposed the policies of the government in position”.
From the 1970s, the Intelligence Bureau’s role in political surveillance—often of dubious legality—expanded steadily, with successive Directors of the Intelligence Bureau becoming enmeshed in the Government’s efforts to undermine opponents.
These operations were to bring the Intelligence Bureau into considerable disrepute during the Emergency of 1955-1977. The LP Singh Committee, set up to consider reforms, is still secret but is believed to have neither assigned personal responsibility for violations of the law by the intelligence services, nor measures to reform these organisations. Wiretap scandals have been a regular, and depressing, a feature of India’s political scandal; the Pegasus exposé marks the deepening of this toxic mire.
As a result, the Intelligence Bureau continues a substantial part of its resources on political intelligence-gathering. This draws away already-stretched means. the Government committed funding of Rs 2,575 crore for the organisation for 2019-2020, less than a third, for example, of the Rs 7,497 allocated for the Delhi Police alone. A tiny fraction of that sum—Rs 83.5 crore—will be available for capital investments.
The Intelligence Bureau’s means are in stark contrast to those of major intelligence agencies in the West; the Federal Bureau of Investigations, with a far narrower role, has sought $9.6 billion in funding for the 2020 Financial Year.
In 2013, Parliament was informed that some 8,000 positions in the organisation were unﬁlled, out of a sanctioned staff strength of 26,867. Things have not significantly changed. Although precise numbers are hard to estimate, of some 30-odd Joint Director-level officials—the critical level of senior executive authority—only nine operate in national-security domains like counter-terrorism.
Experts have long understood these problems. As the highly-regarded bureaucrat NN Vohra has noted, there is also “no mechanism to assess the productivity of our two apex intelligence agencies”. In one article, now-National Security Advisor Ajit Doval called for debate to shape “new doctrines, suggest structural changes, aim at optimisation of resources and examine administrative and legislative changes required for the empowerment of intelligence agencies”. None of this has been done.
The third problem, and the key to addressing the first two, is the most important: the misuse of the State’s espionage capacities against citizens threatens the polity itself. Governments, in democracies, have imposed legislative oversight and accountability over the intelligence services. Their intelligence services are among the best in the world—but not tools of despotism, like in China, Russia or Saudi Arabia.
Following the exposure of the Mazzini scandal, Members of Parliament noted unrestrained surveillance by the intelligence services eroded trust within society, the building block of polities. In addition, they restricted the positive impact of revolutionary technology, the one-penny postal system which had for the first time enabled seamless, private communication across the United Kingdom. Lord Chief Justice Robert Denham concurred, assailing the state for violating privacy without just cause.
Then-Home Secretary James Graham pushed back: in a nation beset by working-class mass movements, and political radicalism, unrestrained intelligence gathering was necessary. This is the same argument being made today—but it comes with severe costs.
The intelligence status quo in India perpetuates the worst of all possible worlds, providing shelter for incompetence and criminality, deterring reform, and subverts national institutions. Few care: former union minister Manish Tewari, who moved a private members’ bill to ensure oversight, was ignored by his own party—let alone the Government. The real Pegasus revelation is this: India’s intelligence services are in a state of dangerous crisis, that threatens our republic.
—Praveen Swami is Group Consulting Editor, Network18.