The recent Hamas attack on Israel leading to thousands of deaths has revived the age-long debate on the efficacy of ‘Intelligence’ as a weapon against terrorism. Killings continue as I write this, with Israel taking the conflict right into Gaza. It has vowed to root out the Hamas members and sympathisers holed out there. Whether it succeeds in this mission of vengeance or not there is no denying of the fact that Israel is badly hurt over the humiliation it suffered at the Hamas’ hands.

There are reports that Israeli operatives, planted across the border much prior to October 7, did notice a lot of unusual activity in the days before the Hamas attack, raising suspicion of anti-Israeli manoeuvres. It is further said that a message to this effect was indeed sent to the Israeli high command by those owing allegiance to Israel and who had infiltrated into Gaza.

This warning was either ignored or did not reach the higher echelons. This is not surprising because security forces in several countries are known for their complacency or arrogance, exposing themselves to the risk of misadventures by motley groups motivated by ideology or mercenary considerations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under fire for his administration’s failure at the Gaza border. That Hamas could launch so many rocket attacks and infiltrate into Israel more than a thousand foot soldiers unchallenged by Israeli defence forces highlights the latter’s vulnerability.

There is one view that the Gaza disaster was caused by Israel’s excessive dependence on technology and neglect of what is termed as ‘Humint’, which places emphasis on human beings trained to pick up information on the ground and for whom technology comes only second. This apparently attractive and plausible interpretation ignores the fact that in current times infiltration of intelligence men and women into terrorist groups — a reliable modus to collect accurate intelligence — has become extremely difficult. This is because many terrorists are so intensely motivated by religious fundamentalism that they will not succumb to monetary considerations offered by intelligence outfits.

Experts the world over continue to be baffled as to how the defence of a technologically superior nation, which had spent billions to arm itself, could be breached so effortlessly by a terror group, albeit with the support of Iran and other Islamist forces in the region. Any post mortem may not throw up all that every national security agency — including those in India — would like to know in order to protect themselves better against rogue nations and groups. Still the exercise should continue if nations are to feel more secure.

Sensational happenings

The occasion for major criticism of intelligence agencies is often provided by any sensational happening, especially the assassination of a highly placed dignitary or a major attack on a vital State installation. The killings of US President John F Kennedy, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi come readily to our mind. The 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York City in 2001 and 26/11 intrusion and killings in Mumbai in 2008 also fall into this category. Could these unfortunate happenings have been prevented? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

The subject is of universal relevance because, apart from autocratic regimes, even well established democracies across the globe believe that a well-oiled intelligence machinery is a sine qua non for disabling disruptive elements thriving on social disorder.

There is often the criticism that intelligence outfits serve only the ruling party’s narrow political interests. It will be preposterous to paint all intelligence organisations with the same brush. They do much more than protect the ruling political group. An appraisal of the potential and value of intelligence organisations should take into account the enormous good work done by some of them in exposing and frustrating the evil designs of outfits like Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and a host of others actively promoted by Pakistan. So many innocent lives have been saved by alerts issued by intelligence agencies.

In my view, an apolitical and closely guided and well trained intelligence outfit actually strengthens democracy, and does not undermine it. It is our sad experience that intelligence officials operate most of the time in an ambience of hostility and suspicion. Both the media and politicians in the Opposition are quick to seize any opportunity to embarrass a government by questioning the ability of its intelligence outfit. This is unkind per se but possible in a highly politicised world.

In the ultimate analysis what is required is a greater public understanding of the difficulties faced by intelligence officials on the ground. One false step by them can embarrass a whole nation.

The job requires tact and self-effacement, an intricate mixture indeed. It is not only Israel, but we in India also have lessons to learn from the recent conflict.

The writer is a former CBI Director and a former High Commissioner of India to the Republic of Cyprus