Intelligence Alliances And The Counterintelligence Challenge – Analysis

“My brother has certain rules of secrecy and he obliges me to obey them scrupulously. The circle he trusts is extremely small, and he will not enlarge it. In essence, he trusts neither Arab nor European. What we do alone, we alone can betray.”

These words were supposedly uttered by Palestinian terrorist Khalil to Charmian ‘Charlie’ Ross, the inquiring protagonist of John le Carré’s 1983 novel The Little Drummer Girl—could well apply to the puzzle of intelligence sharing in a multipolar age. As great, middle, and small powers seek to take advantage of the expanded horizons and choices for strategic partnerships that are increasingly available today, the construction of intelligence alliances—historically a means for strategic cooperation/power projection—is more important than ever.

Yet intelligence sharing is always accompanied by considerations of counterintelligence- which is where Khalil’s enigmatic observation on an ‘enlarged’ circle increasing the potential risk of ‘betrayal’ comes to bear on decision-making. How can states manage the counterintelligence problems generated within ‘minilateral’ intelligence-sharing frameworks? And what might this mean for countries such as India—an active proponent and participant in regional ‘geometric’ intelligence diplomacy?

The global context

Intelligence alliances/groupings have become indispensable to the contemporary global security architecture. While the Five Eyes alliance might be the most famous—and to a lesser extent, also its partner groupings like the ‘Nine Eyes’ (including France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands)—there are many global examples. The 1970s saw the establishment of three major global intelligence alliances. The first, the Club de Berne, was established to coordinate counterterrorism efforts among European states on the growing challenge of Palestinian terrorist activity on the continent, eventually growing to incorporate all 27 member-states of the European Union (EU). The second and third were ‘minilaterals’, established as a direct response to the CIA’s diminished latitude for action following the exposure of its wrongdoings by the US Congress’ Church Committee in 1975. The Maximator alliance, established in 1976 and including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, was constructed with a focus on Europe and continues to operate to this day, while the Safari Club, including the intelligence services of France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and pre-revolutionary Iran, sought to coordinate covert operations against Soviet-backed state and insurgent actors in Africa in the later stages of the Cold War.

However, counterintelligence challenges have been inextricably linked to the very existence and operation of such groupings. In the 1960s, the US ensured that France was shut out of NATO intelligence-sharing mechanisms, following Paris’ failure to act on information provided by the CIA on the supposed existence of a Soviet ‘mole’ within President Charles de Gaulle’s inner circle. The Safari Club ceased to exist soon after its inception as a new regime took power in Tehran following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Closer to the present, concerns rose about the internal vulnerabilities within Five Eyes due to the inclusion of Canada and New Zealand, the former for the generally anaemic quality of its security infrastructure and capabilities, and the latter for its relatively cordial bilateral relations with revisionist powers such as China. Similar apprehensions overshadow European intelligence cooperation. Austria, although nominally still a member of the Club de Berne, has effectively been shut out of the grouping for both its weak cyber defences and, more seriously, for tolerating espionage against fellow Western partners as long as the target is not Austria itself. And Belgium, while also a member of the Club de Berne and having grown its counterintelligence capabilities in recent years, has been rocked by numerous spy scandals since the late 2010s—raising questions about subsequent wider risks to European security.

Notwithstanding these many problems, it is, however, clear that membership within intelligence alliances has been broadly positive for member-states, allowing them to exercise outsized influence on the world stage. The challenge, therefore, is to continue to encourage cooperation while mitigating existing counterintelligence vulnerabilities.

India and intelligence sharing

What does this mean for India? Central to New Delhi’s expanded role within international politics over the past decade has been its leading role within various regional intelligence-sharing mechanisms, both with the specific purpose of security cooperation and as subordinate to existing multilateral diplomatic channels. The 2019 establishment of the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), has been a core part of these efforts. Serving as a centre for the collection and processing of raw SIGINT and imagery intelligence (IMINT) collected via overhead satellites and radar stations across the IOR, the IFC-IOR’s work has been vital to India’s efforts to establish itself as a net security provider in the region Processed intelligence from the centre has facilitated the Indian Navy’s anti-piracy operations in the IOR since late 2023. It is also disseminated to partner countries such as the United Kingdom (UK), France, fellow QUAD nations and Bangladesh via their liaison officers posted at its headquarters in Gurugram.

India also leverages its membership within regional multilateral organisations to use intelligence as a resource for power projection. Processed hydrographic intelligence from the IFC-IOR is shared regularly with fellow member-states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association via liaison officers, which has helped to both warn member-states of impending natural disasters but also in countering maritime security challenges such as piracy. India also plays an active role within the Colombo Security Conclave—a biennial security grouping bringing together intelligence officials from India, Bangladesh, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Mauritius established in 2011 and focuses on such issues as cybersecurity, counter-trafficking efforts and the dissemination of maritime information. India also uses BIMSTEC security channels to coordinate intelligence sharing among member-states on transnational organised crime, and cyber-intelligence, particularly relating to counter-ransomware and the identification of Advanced Persistent Threat actors.

India’s efforts, however, potentially face similar challenges as those of its aforementioned Western counterparts. The election of Mohammed Muizzu’s pro-China administration in Malé has already had a detrimental impact on the smooth functioning of mechanisms such as the Colombo Security Conclave, with the Maldives notably refusing to attend the grouping’s summit meeting in December 2023. Indeed, tense relations between India and the pro-China administration of Mohammad Yameen in Malé had led to the suspension of the group’s meetings from 2014 to 2020, reflecting politically generated counterintelligence challenges for the smooth functioning of such platforms. Likewise, China through its String of Pearls strategy may co-opt regional security agencies participating within Indian-led regional intelligence alliances, adding to security concerns. Hence, the following recommendations may be presented:

The election of Mohammed Muizzu’s pro-China administration in Malé has already had a detrimental impact on the smooth functioning of mechanisms such as the Colombo Security Conclave, with the Maldives notably refusing to attend the grouping’s summit meeting in December 2023.

First, it is recommended that a centralised counterintelligence command be established in all multilateral diplomatic groupings that India participates within—namely BIMSTEC and IORA. Based within the secretariat, this bureau would involve senior intelligence officials from all member-states working jointly and learning from one another in managing security challenges accompanying intelligence sharing. Second, an expansion of existing intelligence diplomacy efforts, with countries with better-developed security bureaucracies/infrastructure such as India taking more active effort in bolstering member-states intelligence systems against compromise. Finally, undertaking regular and mutually-agreed investigations of partners’ security capabilities among states, on similar lines as the Club de Berne.

Adopting specific mechanisms geared towards the acknowledgement and subsequent management of counterintelligence within such groupings would offset some of the risks discussed. Ultimately, the parallel pursuit of cooperation with an eye on the clear and present counterintelligence dangers they generate is critical for a successful and effective strategy in a multipolar world—and one that states must consider more seriously.

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