Spooky change

Source: Times of India 


The alleged spying attack (Pegasus) on opposition leaders, journalists and protestors has raised questions over the accountability and independent functioning of intelligence agencies. In this context, a private member bill is introduced for allowing parliamentary oversight over them.


Congress MP Manish Tewari has revived his private members’ bill to give legal backing and parliamentary oversight to intelligence and security agencies. It includes the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Intelligence Bureau (IB) and National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO). The idea, first mooted by Tewari in 2011, is excellent and merits cross-party support.

Rationale behind its introduction:
  1. Augment Accountability: There is no constitutional or statutory backing of IB, or even a formal charter, apart from a law of 1985, restricting some of its rights. There’s no independent oversight or external scrutiny.
    • It is essential to lay out an intelligence agency’s remit, the range of actions permitted to the minister it reports to, and protections for the agency’s director. Such safeguards will help in preventing Pegasus-like attacks in the future.
  2. Upholding Democracy: It is essential for intelligence agencies to be accountable to the public through the legislature, instead of a report to the executive alone.
    • Secrecy is needed for security and intelligence work but in democracies, safeguards to prevent illegal or dubious practices are as important.
    • For example, there has to be clear demarcation between public duties and information-gathering of political nature that seems ultra vires of constitutional liberties.
  3. Preserving Independence: There must be institutional safeguards to allow officials to refuse unreasonable instructions from the political executive.
  4. Regaining Trust: Given intelligence agencies’ enormous new powers of surveillance and enhanced instances of spying, the bill is essential to re-establish their credibility.
Global Scenario:

All over the world, scandals and rights abuses led to reforms. 

  • U.S: In the mid-1970s, shocked by CIA spying, the US enacted oversight mechanisms, including congressional scrutiny.
    • In the US, congressional intelligence committees, which work within a ring of secrecy, must be informed in advance of special operations.  
  • Australia and Canada: They enacted safeguards in the 1980s. In Canada, for instance, ministerial instructions have to be put in writing and made available to the oversight committee. 
    • In Australia, reporting is done to an independent inspector-general, who further reports to the leader of the opposition.
  • U.K and Norway: In the UK, the intelligence and security committee’s oversight is limited to policy and finance. In Norway, to matters of human rights and the rule of law.
Way Ahead:

Parliamentary oversight doesn’t mean the whole House. A specialised parliamentary committee to exercise systematic and focussed oversight is what India needs. India could do well by following the US model of parliamentary oversight.

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