Covert action is a troublesome but often useful tool of statecraft

Ottawa is within its rights to protest, but I am unsure of the wisdom of the course it is pursuing.  (AFP)
Ottawa is within its rights to protest, but I am unsure of the wisdom of the course it is pursuing. (AFP)


The notion that democracies do not engage in targeted killings overseas is not supported by facts

There is not enough information in the public domain to assess the Canadian government’s allegation that Indian officials were involved in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, but we should not be too impressed by media commentary along the lines of “India wants to be like Israel but is ending up like Russia" or that “democracies don’t engage in targeted killings."

Covert action—including targeted killings—is an instrument of statecraft that exists in the toolkit of all sovereign states, including democracies. Opening his history of Israeli targeted killing operations, Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist, states that since World War II, the country has assassinated more people than any other in the Western world, killing more than 1,000 people by the turn of the century and carrying out another 800 operations in the years since. By his count, the United States carried out 48 target killings during the George W. Bush presidency and 353 under the Obama administration. Rory Cormac, a British scholar, finds that while MI6 “has never been in the business of killing people... a pattern exists of indirect involvement in killings, without British agents having to pull the trigger—or even give the order—themselves." In his view, the covert action scene “is mainly dominated by Britain, America, Israel and France."

Those arguing that only rogue states engage in targeted killings need a strong dose of self-awareness. The odious label ‘rogue state’ is more an indication of how much such a state’s adversaries control the global narrative and their perception of interests. Being so labelled has political and economic consequences, but it is important to remember that the term is political and subjective. To be sure, targeted killings transgress international norms. They are, therefore, an indicator of power. The more powerful the state, the more easily it can transgress and the more easily it can get away with the act. We might not like it, but this is just the way the world is.

From a realist perspective, the question is not whether covert action is good or evil, but whether it is effective. It must pass four tests. First, whether you have the capability to carry it out; second, whether you have the capacity to get away with it; third, whether you achieved the desired objective; and fourth, whether you can manage its unintended consequences. By their very nature, covert actions are highly risky. The bar for success is extremely high and even the simplest of operations can have severe unwanted results.

It was in part for this reason that the US Congress set up the Church Committee in 1974 to investigate excesses of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Consistent with the constitutional culture of the US, there have been periodic attempts to place covert actions under a legal framework, fix accountability and institute oversight. But as Gregory Treverton, a senior intelligence policy expert, argued in his masterful analysis of covert action back in 1987, the “tension between accountability and operational necessity cannot be resolved." Leaders can’t have plausible deniability if there has to be a mandatory accounting trail.

Contrary to what you read in spy thrillers and chest-thumping action movies, intelligence officials do not like killing people. Even more than their CIA and MI6 counterparts, India’s intelligence officers are strongly opposed to targeted killings. In response to the Canadian allegations, A.S. Dulat, former R&AW chief said, “We don’t do these things. We do not go around assassinating people. Let me make this very clear." Treverton found that the CIA’s dislike for targeted killings often caused the dirty work to be outsourced to the mafia and rebel groups (and, more recently, to private contractors.) There is literally a principal-agent problem here that expands the scope for errors of judgement, loss of control, exposure and mission failure.

While realists will not discriminate the type of regime on the two sides of a covert action, is it correct for democracies to carry out targeted killings in other democracies? Unless you accept the unreasonable assertion that all democracies have similar interests, the answer is yes, it can be. If cooperation fails at the law-enforcement and diplomatic levels and there is an imminent threat to national security, reasonable people can agree that covert action should not be ruled out. The question then is whether the considered action passes the four above-mentioned tests.

I will not be surprised if it emerges that New Delhi has used the covert action option in Canada. Ottawa is within its rights to protest, but I am unsure of the wisdom of the course it is pursuing. There is much to admire in Canada’s commitment to liberty, but it should not condone preparations for an armed struggle in India. The demand for Khalistan among Canadian nationals has very little to do with the state of civil liberties in India. Ottawa is wrong to conflate the two.

At this time, Canadians are justifiably concerned about foreign interference in their democracy. So are Indians. Good politics and astute diplomacy can reconcile these differences and rebuild trust. It is in the interest of both New Delhi and Ottawa to quickly head in this direction.

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