Intelligence failures and reforms


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A recurrent theme in the post-mortem of the latest Mumbai terror attacks was the ostensible failure of intelligence. The intelligence agencies sought to fend off these accusations by a series of leaks to the press. The agencies had apparently issued a stream of warnings in the months preceding the attacks: the latest one being given as late as 18 November 2008. The Union home minister has stated that there had been problems of coordination between the numerous agencies and their subsidiaries, and that the government had ‘closed these gaps’.

A full assessment of the intelligence aspects of the Mumbai attacks will have to await adequate and credible information. Yet there are good reasons to be sceptical of the government’s claims that the problems were only procedural and that they have now been rectified. Similar claims have been advanced in the past, but failures continue to occur. These might partly reflect the fact that the attempted procedural fixes were not fully implemented. The deeper problem, however, is that such changes are unlikely to set right the system.

There are broadly three types of intelligence failures: those pertaining to the collection of information, to its analysis, and to the response to the produced intelligence. Shortcomings in collection can be attributed to the agencies; but those in analysis and response tend to be as much failures of the political-strategic leadership as of any agency. Three categories of factors, either singly or in combination, account for these failures: external, organizational and innate.1 

The external factors relate to our adversaries who would want to conceal or misrepresent their intentions and capabilities. A principal challenge of intelligence is to operate against forces that actively seek to outwit us. The organizational factors could include negligent intelligence agents, rivalry between agencies or their leadership, and firewalls between different agencies. These are the issues that tend to be the focus of efforts at intelligence reform. The innate factors are certain key aspects of intelligence that are inherently problematic and not amenable to being ‘fixed’. Indeed, these innate factors render intelligence failures inevitable.

This essay seeks to shed light on some of these issues by drawing on the history of intelligence failures in India. In particular, I examine why New Delhi failed to anticipate the ‘surprise attacks’ by China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1999. These cases speak to our current predicament for two reasons. Acts of terrorism are classic instances of surprise attacks. Hence, understanding intelligence failures of this category would be useful. Moreover, in both these cases the intelligence agencies could rightly claim to have provided several inputs germane to the attack.


The Chinese attack of October 1962 came at the end of an armed stand-off that had lasted over three years. The first serious skirmishes had occurred along the disputed boundary in August and October 1959. Towards the end of 1961, the Indian government adopted a ‘forward policy’ of placing posts ahead of their present locations to deter further Chinese incursions. The Chinese responded by establishing posts encircling the new Indian ones.2 


On 6 May 1962 about 100 Chinese troops, in assault formation, advanced towards an Indian post in the Chip Chap valley in the Ladakh sector. In the event, the Chinese backed off without attacking. The next flashpoint was the Galwan valley in Ladakh, where Indian forces established a picket on 4 July. The Chinese responded swiftly. By 10 July the PLA had surrounded the post, sealed off all possible withdrawal routes, and advanced within 100 yards of the post. The People’s Daily carried a lurid headline: ‘The Indian government should rein in on the brink of the precipice.’ Yet again, the Chinese desisted from attacking the post. But the confrontation triggered further moves by the Chinese to surround Indian posts, actions that resulted in a rash of shooting incidents.

Meantime, the eastern sector of the frontier (now Arunachal Pradesh) was getting active too. In response to an Indian attempt to establish a post near the Namka Chu river, the Chinese occupied the ridge dominating the river. New Delhi sought to rush reinforcements to the area in order to evict the Chinese. Even as India tergiversated, China launched its attack on both sectors of the boundary on 20 October 1962.

Between April and October 1962 the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the agency then tasked with external as well as internal intelligence, prepared periodic assessments of Chinese disposition, movements, strength and build-up. The most pointed intelligence input came in late May. The IB learnt that the Chinese consulate in Calcutta had indicated to communists and fellow travellers Beijing’s intention to forcefully remove Indian posts in Ladakh. The director of IB passed this on directly to the prime minister, the defence minister and the home minister.3 


Why, then, did the Indian government fail to apprehend the coming Chinese attack? A combination of five factors helps to explain this failure. Consider first the organizational problem. The IB was asked not just to collect information but also to assess likely Chinese responses. This violated the fundamental principle that the reporting agency should not be asked to assess its own reports. This task fell under the purview of the joint intelligence committee (JIC), which was a sub-council of the chiefs of staff committee.

The JIC, however, was defunct. Its chairman, a senior ministry of external affairs (MEA) official, had no prior exposure to intelligence, and by his own admission he was unable to get the committee to function in a coordinated manner. The directorate of military intelligence was a key component of the JIC. But it neither possessed independent intelligence sources nor was effective in producing threat assessments. In consequence, the IB’s inputs were not subjected to rigorous analysis and their political and military import was not well understood.

A second, and related, factor was that Indian officials’ views tended to be coloured by the IB’s analytical approach and conclusions. Prior to the decision to adopt the forward policy, the MEA and the army headquarters had asked the IB for an assessment of Chinese capabilities and intent. On 26 September 1961 the IB submitted a comprehensive paper stating that ‘the Chinese would like to come right up to their claim of 1960 wherever we ourselves were not in occupation. But where even a dozen men of ours are present, the Chinese have kept away.’ Drawing on past experience, the paper suggested that China would not react sharply to the new Indian moves.


This assessment soon became an article of faith among civilian and military officials alike. For instance, in June 1962, the chief of general staff wrote to the defence ministry: ‘I am convinced that the Chinese will not attack any of our positions even if they [Indian posts] are relatively weaker than theirs.’ Similarly, in mid-September 1962, when moves to evict China from the Namka Chu area were being debated, the foreign secretary insisted that the Chinese would not escalate the fighting – though Indian posts at one or two places could be threatened, this being indicated by the pattern of Chinese behaviour.

The foreign secretary’s confidence stemmed from yet another source. The MEA’s China division and the director of military operations at the army headquarters had together tried to assess China’s logistical capabilities based on estimates of the road networks close to the frontier. They had concluded that the infrastructure was incapable of supporting a full-scale invasion deep into Indian territory. The chairman JIC recalled this belief holding sway in the MEA ‘till the last moment.’

The fourth, and perhaps most important, factor was the political leadership’s background assumptions about the unfolding crisis. At least since the end of 1950, Nehru had discounted the possibility of a major attack by China owing to international factors. He thought an attack on India would invariably carry the risk of great power intervention. From late 1959, Nehru also believed that the Soviet Union would act as a restraining force on China. Neither of these assumptions was wholly mistaken, but they were not immutable facts either. Furthermore, Nehru believed that by means of prudent management the crisis could be prevented from going critical.

The outcome of the stand-offs at Chip Chap and Galwan tended mostly to buttress Nehru’s assumptions. During the latter, Nehru confessed that it was difficult to decide whether China’s wordy warfare foreshadowed military action in the months ahead. Yet, he felt that there would be no major clash. Part of the problem – this was the fifth factor – was that the Chinese adopted a stand of reasonableness, which considerably masked their intentions to resolve the dispute by resort to force. As Nehru noted, the Chinese diplomatic notes had a ‘characteristic ambivalence’, at once breathing fire and advocating negotiations. Nehru revised his views only around 12 October. He now felt that the situation along the Namka Chu was ‘definitely a dangerous one, and it may lead to major conflicts.’ By then, of course, the attack was only a week in coming.


On 3 May 1999, the Indian Army received reports from local shepherds on the presence of armed intruders in the Kargil sector. It subsequently transpired that an estimated 1700 Pakistani Army regulars and militants had crossed the unheld gaps in the line of control and occupied positions on the Indian side. The Indian government was certainly taken by surprise.4

In the months preceding the intrusion, the intelligence agencies circulated several reports indicating the possibility of increased artillery shelling and infiltration in the Kargil sector. As early as June 1998, the IB reported ‘increased activities at the border and continuing endeavour to infiltrate a large group of foreign mercenaries.’ It also reported ‘increased movement’ of Pakistan Army opposite the Kargil sector. Importantly, this report was issued by the director IB; but bypassing the JIC (now subsumed under the National Security Council Secretariat) and the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) it was sent directly to the prime minister and the home minister as well as the director general of military operations. The military intelligence assessed that the inputs were consistent with the heightened activity in the aftermath of the nuclear tests of May 1998.


In October, the R&AW reported that ‘Pakistan appeared hell-bent on interdicting our Dras-Kargil highway’ by means of increased shelling. The report also observed that ‘A limited swift offensive threat with possible support of alliance partners cannot be ruled out.’ However, when the army headquarters sought further details on where such an offensive might occur, neither the R&AW nor the JIC responded with clarifications or elaboration. The following month, the IB reported that Pakistan was providing military training to Taliban, who were likely to be infiltrated into Kargil area in April 1999. The JIC issued a paper the same month stating the possibility of increased pressure on places like Siachen, Kargil, Rajouri/Poonch sectors and the likelihood of a ‘new militant offensive next summer.’

The JIC’s assessments of the wider political-strategic context were none too optimistic. The JIC noted in March 1999 that despite Prime Minister Vajpayee’s bus journey and the Lahore declaration there was ‘no let up on anti-Indian rhetoric… no basic change in their overall approach towards India and the Kashmir issue.’ Earlier, it had noted that the new Pakistan Army chief was a ‘hardliner on India’ and that his appointment may not augur well for India-Pakistan relations.


The Indian government’s inability to foresee the intrusion arose from a combination of factors. For a start, the Pakistan Army made excellent use of stealth and deception in the run-up to the operation. Indian agencies could not pick up any of the tell-tale indicators: induction of additional troops, logistics build-up, and improvement in communications. The Pakistanis also managed to convey the impression that the activity in the area related to preparation for infiltration of militants. Indeed, even after the incursion was detected the Indians remained unclear about the composition of the intruding force.

Furthermore, the intelligence assessments remained focused on the possibility of increased infiltration and did not anticipate an intrusion of this scale. Infiltration had thus far been Pakistan’s modus operandi. Past experience also suggested that such an intrusion was not likely to succeed in the Kargil sector. There had been no large-scale infiltration in the area since a major intrusion in 1993 in which the Pakistanis suffered 27 casualties. When the possibility of a limited offensive in Kargil was raised at a JIC meeting on 18 September 1998, the representatives of the agencies thought that Pakistan could not send intruders into this area owing to the difficult terrain and the fact that the Shiite population of Kargil was unlikely to support them.

The military, too, discounted the possibility of unheld gaps along the line of control being occupied by intruders. This was based on the assumption that militants do not prefer to occupy territory and hold defensive positions. As the then army chief subsequently observed, ‘They normally follow "hit and run" tactics.’

Finally, the political leadership’s assumptions about the state of India-Pakistan relations would have led them to disregard the possibility of such an intrusion. At one level, they believed that India’s nuclear arsenal would deter Pakistan from threatening the use of nuclear weapons, and so enable India to use its conventional superiority in tackling Pakistan’s support for the insurgency. India’s deputy prime minister had warned Pakistan to ‘roll-back its anti-India policy’: otherwise it would ‘prove costly’. From the Indian leaders’ perspective, an intrusion of this scale would have appeared strategically irrational for Pakistan to undertake. At another level, they believed that relations with Pakistan were on the mend. The official and back-channel talks after the tests led to the Lahore summit in February 1999. The trip to Pakistan underscored the fact that Prime Minister Vajpayee was sanguine about ties with Pakistan. Once the intrusion came to light, Vajpayee’s disappointment was evident.


Looking back at the failures of 1962 and 1999, it is obvious that procedural changes could have improved the quality of the assessment process. In 1962, the JIC was dysfunctional. In 1999, too, it could have been more effective. The Kargil Review Committee rightly observes that the assessment process and the JIC’s function have been downgraded in importance. But this fixation on structure and process obscures more fundamental problems.

Consider the patterns that emerge from both cases. First, assessments of future behaviour of the adversary rested on extrapolations from patterns of past behaviour. This form of inductive reasoning is the most prevalent mode of making predictions about the way the world works. The problem with inductive reasoning is that it licenses a bias towards assuming continuity rather than deviance. And wars represent aberrant behaviour, displaying sharp discontinuities from the normal form of handling international disputes. The alternative to inductive reasoning is to adopt a deductive approach. We start with a hypothesis and examine how well the available data fits with it. The trouble here is that the information collected by the agencies might fit well with more than one hypothesis. The problem, therefore, is that there is no sound methodology for divining such abrupt shifts in behaviour.


It could be argued that the best response would be to proceed on the worst-case assumption. Such a response, however, is bound to pose high costs – costs that might come to be seen as unnecessary. For instance, if the Indian Army had tried to plug the gaps along the line of control in the winter of 1998-99, it would certainly have resulted in casualties owing to weather. Further, it is quite likely that the Pakistanis might have put off the operation because of Indian moves. This, in turn, might have led the Indians to reconsider the wisdom of incurring such costs when the anticipated development did not occur. Even if propounded in principle, worst-case thinking will be corroded in practice. The paradox here is of a ‘self-negating prophecy.’

Second, the military leadership in both cases assessed that the adversary did not have the necessary logistical capability to undertake the requisite operation. This led to the assumption that it would be irrational for the adversary to attempt the operation. It is easy to criticize this belief in hindsight. The military might have been mistaken in assuming that the adversary would act rationally; but it is not clear what an assumption of irrationality would entail and what criteria can be applied to judge its validity. The Review Committee suggests that political-military war gaming would have helped. Hardly. War games are best suited to rehearse responses to certain contingencies, not to generate them. Most games, in fact, start out with stylized expectations about enemy moves.


Third, the political leadership in both cases held beliefs that led them to assume that the adversary would not launch an attack. Much of the information provided by the agencies was assimilated in a manner that fit with their preconceptions. This results from the physiology of our cognitive processes. Once we start thinking about an issue in a certain way, the same mental channels get reinforced when we return to the issue. This is essential for retrieving information, but also creates ‘mental ruts’ that make it difficult to view the information in a different pattern.5 The more ambiguous the information, the stronger is the role of preconceptions. This explains why drawing the top leadership’s attention to specific pieces of important information is likely to be futile.

In order to avoid this problem, the idea of using a ‘devil’s advocate’ is often suggested. But institutionalizing such a role is unlikely to help; for the ‘devil’ will likely be regarded as advancing arguments for the sake of it, and will seldom be taken seriously. Moreover, senior political leaders are usually not swayed by contrary assessments prepared by mid-ranking staffers. They tend to believe, with some justification, that their personal interaction and experience give them a better understanding of the mind-set of other leaders.

These innate problems of intelligence are by no means specific to India: they can be observed in intelligence failures across countries. Comparative studies also demonstrate that these are usually intractable. Intelligence failures are thus unavoidable.


This is not to make a case for despair. For one thing, arguing that intelligence failures are inevitable is not the same as suggesting that they will always fail. For another, it might be useful to view intelligence performances not as success or failure but as a ‘batting average’ over time. This will require our agencies to examine their own historical records and estimate the ratio of success to failure in making predictions. To be sure, this will not be a flawless number; but it will give us a reasonable idea of their comparative performance. It might also enable us to decide which analysts should be promoted to the top order of the batting line-up. Finally, sensitizing intelligence professionals and consumers to social sciences methodology and cognitive barriers might help them anticipate and limit the problems.

All of these would require resources and commitment from the top leadership. The tasks will be unremarkable, the resistance considerable, and the results slow in coming. Meantime if another ‘surprise attack’ occurs, we could well be back to structural and procedural reforms.



1. This typology draws on Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007.

2. This discussion of 1962 draws on Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru Years, Permanent Black, Delhi, (forthcoming) 2009.

3. B.N. Mullik, My Years With Nehru: The Chinese Betrayal, Allied Publishers, Bombay, 1970, pp. 329-30.

4. This section draws mainly on From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report, Sage, New Delhi, 2000.

5. Richard Heuer, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, CIA, n.p., 1999.