Reimagining  Intelligence

The new era brings with it new technologies that help in intelligence gathering but also ushers new uncertainties. During the Synergia Conclave-2019, M K Narayanan, Former National Security Advisor to GOI & Governor of West Bengal, Uzi Arad, Former NSA, Gov of Israel, Hormis Tharakan, Former Chief of R&AW, and Rajiv Jain, Former Director IB carried out detailed deliberations on “Reimagining Intelligence”.


The degree of interconnectedness between nations, people and the communications systems today, the ubiquitous nature of information, and the exponential pace of technological change are making the world dramatically more complicated. 

The intelligence community too has to grapple with a new complex world of geopolitics. New technologies that help in intelligence gathering also usher new uncertainties. Big data analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will increasingly sift through the data clutter and pinpoint actionable intelligence in real-time. However, whatever the degree of sophistication applied, seldom is intelligence able to provide decision-makers complete certainty of its predictions.


As a veteran intelligence professional, MK Narayanan said that intelligence often referred to as the last five per cent, is always difficult to obtain and getting accurate intelligence is extremely difficult. That rule has not changed despite technological advances. “It is easy to fault intelligence agencies, but no two situations are the same as there is no real parallel to that can be followed. Intelligence agencies have to constantly come up with a range of new options to deal with the current threats,” said Narayanan It is not merely developing a sixth sense, but to keep pace with the advances in technology, in thought and behaviour--take the example of social media and modes of social behaviour that have come up.  

It is important, therefore, for intelligence professionals from the lowest level to the highest to keep pace with what is happening.  “Today we have discussed the changes in fieldcraft that have occurred in the digital age, how noise and signal have become one and how metadata, sometimes more than the content,  becomes a critical aspect of intelligence,” added Narayanan. 

Rajiv Jain, former Director IB explained the intricacies of the intelligence collection process. The most significant change has been in the process of collection of data-in fact massive amount of data is now available. It is therefore very important to ascertain the veracity of the input or information. It is important to feed the right kind of information that is verifiable to have reliable analysis.  In the stages of collation and analysis, while AI, Big Data Analytics and Machine Learning have, in a way eased the task of the analyst, but these technologies could produce stereotypes of outputs. The human analyst with prior knowledge of the field, awareness of the adversary’s intent and clarity of the objective, remains vital and relevant.  However, it would immensely help if the analyst has some amount of technical knowledge to be able to use such tools to help his analysis. 

Information gathering has also changed. In the past, intelligence agencies were adept at HUMINT, or human intelligence. Now there are organisations in India, including purely technical ones like the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO), which generate technical intelligence in huge quantity.  But there is a need for coordination and collaboration between various intel agencies in order to exploit these raw inputs.  “An intelligent mix of technologically assisted data analysis, use of metadata, international cooperation combined with traditional fieldcraft can result in success in a very short time to crack even the toughest of cases”.

Hormis Tharakan, former chief of R&AW stressed on four aspects that need regular monitoring: capacity-building, coordination, legislation and oversight.

At the functional level, coordination is done through Multi-Agency Centres. At the apex level, it is done through the institution of the NSA.  He then outlined how the intelligence coordination system evolved in India from the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) to the present structure with the National Security Council (NSC) and the NSA.  

At the very apex, the level is the NSC consisting of the PM, and five key cabinet ministers. Then there is the Strategic Policy Group headed by the Cabinet Secretary, which works out policy options for the NSC’s consideration. The coordination at this level is done by the NSA who is the member secretary of the NSC. This system combines several features of the American and British system.

Uzi Arad, former NSA, Israel, explained the role of intelligence agencies at the higher policy management in Israel. Arad has vast experience in the area having worked for nearly 25 years with Mossad.  He worked both in the classical areas of intelligence as also on the operational side. More importantly, he crossed the divide between intelligence and policy having served twice in the policy capacity as foreign affairs and foreign relations adviser to the Israeli PM and then years later as the NSA and the head of the NSC.

The activities of intelligence agencies today go beyond the collection of information and analysis. “Intelligence organisations are also actors, and they play the game of nations. They are the ones who have to be able, to tell the truth, to sift the truth from the lies but at the same time they are very active in misinformation, disinformation, and usage of modern technologies and processes and networks to accomplish that objective,” said Arad. 

He also highlighted the issue of foreign intelligence agencies meddling in the electoral processes of friendly and not so friendly countries. This causes material damage because if it disrupts the performance of the government, it incurs the cost. 

During the discussion phase, MK Narayanan, the moderator raised the issue of whether the current system with the NSA at the Apex, which had placed several layers between the intelligence agencies and the political leadership, was the best system for the country.   

According to Uzi Arad, the NSA integrates intelligence with policy, but it is his duty to make sure that the voice of the intelligence is heard by the political leadership.
Rajiv Jain said that with the several agencies now involved with intelligence collection, the nation benefits with inputs from various sources including technical inputs. With the NSA at the top, it helps to coordinate the efforts of the different agencies as also facilitate a large amount of cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies.  Hormis Tharakan felt that we need to revert back to the earlier system of director of IB acting as the coordinator given that the NSA is involved in too many things. While summarising, MK Narayanan opined that in the present system, the Principal Secretary to the PM had been integrated into the NSA. While the integration gives the NSA a tremendous role but from the intel point of view, it reduces the interaction the political leadership directly had with the head of IB, R&AW and some of the other agencies. It is inevitable that at the level of the NSA, you tend to take your views sometimes overriding the views of the head of intelligence while communicating to the PM. Ergo, the separation of intelligence from the policy may lead to better outcomes.


  • A resilient intelligence organisation of the future will be built around a combination of brilliant, diverse minds, well-curated data sets, cloud processing, and cutting-edge data science. Predictions made by AI will remain inconclusive whenever a wider context is essential for understanding a problem, or where the past may not necessarily predict the future. We need to place controls on permitting AI to learn independently as autonomous 'black boxes', however analytically powerful it may be.
  • ·New techniques like hyperspectral imaging which comprises light from hundreds of colours across the electromagnetic spectrum will give any object a unique signature. An analyst can study individual pixels of an image to identify specific objects or material. 
  • Technology has allowed humans to connect, interact and share the information which has opened channels where misinformation, blurred lies, and ambiguity reigns supreme. This has also eroded the boundaries between the virtual and the real, the domestic and the international, between states and non- states actors and between war and peace. 
  • In a world of asymmetric threats, it is extremely critical to know more than just what an adversary is doing. Intel agencies must be able to take steps to alter their behaviour.