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Should retired officials be barred from disclosing information?


Feb 25, 2021
Last week, the Government of India prohibited retired officials of security and intelligence organisations from publishing anything about their work or organisation without prior clearance from the head of the organisation. Serving civil servants are barred from expressing their personal opinion on policy matters and criticising the government. But once they retire, many of them take part in public debates and enrich our conversations. In a conversation moderated by Varghese K. George G.K. Pillai and Syed Akbaruddin discuss whether there should be any restrictions on the freedom of expression of a specific category of retired government officials. And if yes, what the limits of such restrictions should be. Edited excerpts:

Mr. Pillai, do you think the restrictions imposed on retired officials of intelligence and security organisations are justifiable?

G.K. Pillai:
We have the Official Secrets Act [of 1923]. Officers of intelligence and security organisations and other departments are privy to a lot of sensitive information. So, all of us in the service take into account the fact that the government needs some control over that information leaking into the public. The issue is whether it is all information on which there is not yet much clarity or whether it is sensitive information. Who decides what is sensitive and what is not? The government would like to have some control so that existing intelligence security operations are not affected by such leakage of information. But there is this fine balance which has to be struck and we have so far been managing that. Many retired officers who are in these sensitive organisations actually informally get their draft vetted by the current head of the security services, so that there is no information which is of operational nature and could get compromised. The government has now put it down in a formal manner and we have to see how it goes.

So, you are in favour of some kind of restrictions. The recent announcement makes this restriction lifelong, and the word ‘sensitive’ is left open to subjective interpretations...

G.K. Pillai: I would put a time limit — say, five years from the time you retire. It is the operational information which is actually more sensitive. In five years, it won’t be of concern in most cases.

Unlike in the U.S., for instance, books by former intelligence officials are infrequent in India. Given that, how do you see the move, Ambassador?

Syed Akbaruddin:
The tradition of understanding history through eyewitness accounts is not new. That tradition, unfortunately, in the past, as far as India is concerned, has been weakened. We gain and the public is better informed of activities, including those taken for the benefit of our own country’s interests, when information is shared from different perspectives. And that should be the broad theme.
Increasingly, a large number of people at different levels have returned to the tradition. The former Leader of the Opposition, L.K. Advani, has written an excellent book about his own experiences, for instance. There is always tension between the government’s desire to keep information secret on national security grounds and the public’s right to information held by public authorities. But there is a near-universal consensus among decision-makers, not only in India but elsewhere too, that some measure of secrecy is necessary to protect authorised national security activities such as intelligence gathering, military operations, sometimes confidentiality of deliberations and sometimes personal privacy.

So, in a democracy, the public has a right to know. Questions related to national security are considered holy. We have ongoing debates on how best we can ensure democratic accountability of security agencies. Is our problem one of too much of information being in the public domain or too little transparency in the functioning of our national security apparatus?

One way in which information is actually given to the public is through the declassification of files. In the U.S., at the end of 30 years, after a rigorous examination, they declassify most files and make them available in the public domain. In India, we don’t declassify information enough. For example, the Henderson Brooks report on the 1962 conflict with China. It’s been more than 60 years and I really don’t think there’s anything in that report which we should be worried about now. Copies of it are on the Internet. So, why are we keeping it a secret? Similarly, as Home Secretary, I had suggested that we declassify the Justice Mukherjee report on Subhas Chandra Bose and send it to the National Archives.

In democracies like the U.S., there is a challenge that the public will have no way of verifying independently what security agencies put out as information. There is a strong case for increasing transparency, but the direction that democracies in general are taking is the opposite — they want to be in control of more and more information.

Reconciling these divergent interests of national security and the right of the public to know is an ongoing challenge. A stable security policy is always hard to achieve since the boundaries of official secrecy cannot be clearly articulated. And national security issues keep evolving, sometimes dramatically. So, you will always have an unsatisfactory situation regarding this.
That said, I will go back to where Mr. Pillai mentioned declassification. Now, declassification is an important tool in raising public awareness after a specified period. In our case, there are two issues. One is that we are sometimes less than forthright about declassification. We also over-classify things which perhaps need not have been classified at all. For example, five years ago or maybe less than that, we contested many elections in the UN and one was a very tough election. At that time, we sent some messages, cables, etc. All of that was classified then. But today, everybody knows what happened, the success was ours. Do we still need to keep that classified?
Coming to the issue of democracies. Now, we need to understand that we don’t want an explosion of deep throats. If you block all avenues of information, or gradually reduce them, you will have to resort to deep throat-kind of activities, which is not good for any society. So, the U.S. itself moved long beyond deep throat. But I think after 9/11, there have been concerns about national security. That’s why a lot of issues relating to national security are being tightened up. So, the phenomenon of non-disclosure of information can be traced back to almost two decades ago. Once you are in that space, it is difficult to roll back because that’s the nature of the beast — that once there is a status quo, you find it difficult to pull back. So, until those are addressed, I would say that this individually will not be addressed so easily.

I think both of you broadly agree that the restrictions that you are favouring must be based on operational calculations. Both of you seem to be okay with the sharing of more information...

Yeah, I think so. During the 1971 War, every time Pakistan said India was interfering in Bangladesh, we denied it. Once the war was over, a number of books were written on the topic by top Army Commanders, Border Security Force [personnel] and others on how they operated inside Bangladesh. I don’t think the Official Secrets Act has been invoked against anybody who has written about that.

So, we can afford to be much more liberal in terms of declassifying information?

Declassification is an area where everybody plays safe. I think at least 50% of the top-secret files in the Government of India can be declassified straightaway. Thousands of files were declassified when I was in the Home Ministry, but we still have thousands more which can be declassified. This is not a priority for the department. And that is why I’m also in favour of a time limit.

Do you think compared to other democracies, India is stricter when it comes to sharing official secrets?

If you look at the tradition of these transparency efforts, the first such effort actually goes back to Europe, and by centuries, when parliaments wanted access to the executive authority. However, it was only towards the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century that this proliferation of what we call the right to information in the Indian context took place globally. There are, I think, 95 to 200 countries today which have these disclosure arrangements in place. They still haven’t covered the entire expanse, because there are, of course, caveats to this. But if you see it in the historical context, the availability of information is certainly much more now than it was, say, 25-30 years ago. Whether it is adequate, my answer would be no. Whether it should be expanded — yes. Whether it should be absolute — again, my answer would be no, because no rights to freedom of expression can be absolute; they will always be restricted in certain contexts. It will be best for all of us if these are clarified from time to time, because these circumstances keep evolving and clarification and enunciation of this is a part of the growth of transparency, whether in India or elsewhere.

Both of you are custodians of quite a few official and national secrets which you have accumulated through your careers. I assume that both of you will write books soon. How much will you be willing to reveal and what will be your consideration when it comes to how much to tell? How will you balance public interest and the existing regulations and your own intellectual honesty?

Your assumption is not wrong; I am working on something. As a citizen of a free and democratic country, which is based on the free flow of information and the right of the public to be aware about situations, I would start from the premise that as much as is feasible can be revealed without, of course, revealing national secrets or difficult situations. In policy debates, you may have differences of opinion. Those differences can be reflected without indicating where individuals are involved. I would come from the proposition that greater transparency, greater public awareness, and the tradition of eyewitnesses providing factual perspectives of their own should be my pathway.

P.V. Narasimha Rao once told an interviewer that a lot of secrets will perish with him. How much of the secrets that you know can be shared, Mr. Pillai? More than 50%?

I think about 80% can be shared. Some 20% can’t be shared partly because the people involved are living contemporaries. And especially if they are in the political sphere, you don’t want either their opponents or them to take advantage of what you have written. So, those are some of the reservations we have. Insofar as general administration, governance issues, policy, etc. are concerned, I don’t think there is much of a problem in trying to put some of those things down. Many IAS officers have done it.

Syed Akbaruddin was India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and is now Dean, Kautilya School of Public Policy; G.K. Pillai is a former Home Secretary of India


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