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V. Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.

PC’s NCTC is not an anti-terror magic wand

NCTC, as it originated in the US after 9/11, is only a “shared knowledge bank on terrorism” and clearing house for integrating and analysing all such intelligence.

Bystanders crouch for cover as shots rang out from Fort Hood’s Soldier Readiness Processing Center on 5 November 2009. Reuters

ollowing the Chief Ministers' refusal (5 May) to ratify the NCTC in its present form, a view was expressed by Congress spokespersons that the "single most important instrument" for our counter-terrorist (CT) drive was lost. In the background of the Maoist abduction of Sukma collector Alex Paul Menon on 21 April, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said (30 April) that "in the medium-to-long term, an NCTC would help us deal with such a situation in a better way". I am, however, yet to know of any such cases in which countries having NCTC had used it for hostage negotiation except by way of collecting background material.

NCTC, as it originated in the US after 9/11, is only a "shared knowledge bank on terrorism" and clearing house for integrating and analysing all such intelligence. This is because the experience of 9/11 revealed that all 16 US intelligence agencies operated on parallel tracks without adequately sharing information with each other. Some like FBI acted without horizontal or vertical dialogue on what they noticed. It is not that such counter-terrorist centres had not existed earlier. The CIA had its Counter-Terrorist Center since 1986, which created a "Bin Laden" cell in 1996. The FBI too had a "Counter Terrorism Division" from 1999. Yet, the integration of intelligence was faulty. The 9/11 Commission observed that the machinery could not connect the dots. Clues on 9/11 attack "slipped through the cracks".

It is to connect these "dots" that their NCTC was created by law in 2004. To quote the 9/11 Committee recommendations: "The NCTC should perform joint planning. The plans would assign operational responsibilities to lead agencies, such as State, the CIA, the FBI, Defense and its combatant commands, Homeland Security, and other agencies. The NCTC should not direct the actual execution of these operations, leaving that job to the agencies. The NCTC would then track implementation; it would look across the foreign-domestic divide and across agency boundaries, updating plans to follow through on cases." Also: "A 'smart' government would integrate all sources of information to see the enemy as a whole. Integrated all-source analysis should also inform and shape strategies to collect more intelligence."

In other words, the US NCTC would do what the old interagency method under US National Security Council was expected to do but failed to do. Within the US, operational work is done by the FBI's 104 multi-agency Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) supervised by the National Joint Terrorism Task Force (NJTTF) and by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) organs for aviation security, border security and coast guards. The local police also has a major role in CT action. Home Minister Chidambaram and the MHA team who made a study tour of the US in 2009 must have known all this. How did they then envisage an "operational role" for our NCTC to be placed under the Intelligence Bureau, which has no legal sanction even when the legally created National Investigating Agency (NIA) was fully authorised to search, arrest and prosecute terrorists?

The 9/11 Commission did not want any executive responsibility to the White House organs after the Iran-Contra scandal. As a lawyer, Chidambaram should know that empowering an intelligence agency with executive action is the biggest danger to democracy and civil rights.

Even with all this, the US NCTC process could not prevent certain serious incidents, all done by Anwar al-Awlaki's admirers: The first was the 5 November 2009 "Fort Hood" killing, in which US Army major psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 and injured 29 in a military base in Texas. Although his radical tendencies were noticed since 2005 and his emails with Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki were examined by FBI's JTTF, no preventive action was taken. The second was the 2009 Christmas Day "Underwear Bomber" Abdul Mutalab trying to detonate a liquid explosive when the North West 253 was approaching Detroit. In this case, Abdul's father had alerted the CIA in Abuja on 19 November. The third case was the 1 May 2010 Times Square bombing attempt by Faizal Shahzad, detected by a hawker, who, however could not identify him.

Our NCTC propagandists, who are "over-selling" it as a magic wand which will prevent or deal all terrorism including Maoist insurgency should know that at best it will only make information sharing better.

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