The National Security Council (NSC), the perceived highest echelon of the security apparatus of Sri Lanka, has been in the news for the past month in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday Terror attacks.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s revelations that he had not been invited to the NSC meetings since regaining office in December 2018 led to wide-scale criticism of the administration. However, research has now shown that the NSC is in fact not a legal entity in the country, but has operated for nearly 40 years as a committee based only on tradition.
The informal nature of the NSC meant that the sole responsibility of ensuring national security in the country remains with the Minister of Defence. The council acts as an advisory body to the Minister, who determines the agenda.
In 1971, following the Southern Insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the then government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike established a committee comprising the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs, the IGP and the Service Commanders. The task of the committee was to brief the relevant Ministers on the current security situation in the country, while allowing the Minister of Defence to continue to make informed decisions. The operations of the NSC continued under Presidents J.R. Jayewardena, Ranasinghe Premadasa, D.B. Wijetunge, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Under Emergency Law in the 1980s, President J.R. Jayewardena and Lalith Athulathmudali established the Joint Operations Command (JOC), which oversaw the day-to-day activities of national security. Alongside this the NSC continued to operate as a committee which oversaw the entire security of the country. In 1984 the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) was established with the sole purpose of working closely with the NSC and to ensure they were kept abreast of all intelligence reports originating from the relevant authorities.
In 2008/9 while the war entered its final stages under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the operations of the NSC was handled by the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and meetings were held regularly. They continued to report to the Minister of Defence, while relevant Ministers were summoned depending on the requirement of the committee.
The key reason behind the NSC’s ability to have successfully operated during the three-decade long Civil War, without any legal foundation, was simply due to the non-politicisation of the council by the relevant Minister-in-Charge. Since assuming the mantle of Minister of Defence in 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena has overseen what many describe as the greatest failure of the security apparatus.
"The President has shown a lack of experience and the inability to delegate duties to those capable of carrying out the various tasks"
Under him, the operations of the NSC had broken with tradition. The NIB’s Director-General, who had been traditionally tasked with compiling all intelligence reports produced by the various intelligence wings and reporting back to the NSC, was sidelined. Under President Sirisena’s purview, the NSC had lacked coordination.
The President has shown a lack of experience and the inability to delegate duties to those capable of carrying out the various tasks. He had failed to appoint any single individual to coordinate the intelligence briefings, instead allowing the different arms to present their own reports to him directly.
The NSC was soon relegated to another political body.
In October 2018, believing that there was an assassination attempt being planned against him, the President sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet. At the time when there was much political uncertainty in the country, it is unclear whether the NSC met or not during that period.
Following the re-appointment of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in December 2018, the President had invited the NSC to meet on two separate occasions, in January and February 2019.
While failing to hold regular NSC meetings, the President continued to hold informal discussions with the IGP and Commanders of the tri-forces, these meetings are believed to have focused solely on the war on drugs, as was highlighted by IGP Pujitha Jayasundera in his submission to the Court last week.
According to the 20-page document submitted to the Court by Mr. Jayasundera, the State Intelligence Service (SIS), which reports directly to the President, had wanted the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) to halt all investigations into Muslim extremist groups. The IGP’s revelation suggests that the various arms of the security apparatus were unable to work together, something that the NSC had been able to ensure in the preceding years. The breakdown of the NSC operations clearly have had a far greater impact on the security of the country.
Despite repeated warnings about Muslim extremist groups convening around the country, the President, who had taken over the portfolio of Law and Order, diverted the attention of the security forces towards the drug menace in the country. In a bid to create a new political platform, President Sirisena seems to have used the NSC for his own political gains.
In fact, in the wake of the arrest of “Makandure Madush”, the information was leaked from the NSC in the hope that political mileage would be gained. Despite having been in operation on an informal basis for nearly 40 years, confidentiality had been maintained by the NSC. However, information emerging from the NSC meetings seem to be boosting the President’s image.
"President Maithripala Sirisena has overseen what many describe as the greatest failure of the security apparatus"
Media reports have suggested that following the unsuccessful Coup last year, the subsequent meetings chaired by the President regarding National Security not only saw the absence of the Prime Minister and key Ministers, while being attended by members of the Opposition.
It is the sole prerogative of the President/Minister of Defence to decide who will attend the NSC meetings, and it would appear that he used it to pursue the areas he considered of interest, in this case the drug war.
As the public continues to criticize the Prime Minister for not informing the Cabinet about his non-invitation to the NSC, it now becomes clear that the sole authority of the NSC is the Minister of Defence, in this case the President. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Cabinet of Ministers has any power to insist on being invited to the National Security Council as it is not a legal entity. While all previous Presidents and Ministers of Defence ensured that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet were kept updated on security matters, it would appear that President Sirisena did not feel compelled to do so. This failing resulted in the terror attacks that shook the nation on April 21.
The lack of a legal foundation for the NSC has meant that in the times of emergency, such as the Easter Sunday bombings, the absence of a Minister of Defence leaves the committee with no authoritative figure. On Sunday, April 21, following the attacks, the NSC refused to meet the Prime Minister, highlighting that this informal body would only recognize the authority of the Minister of Defence. At a time of crisis, the President’s mismanagement of the NSC meant that this body was unwilling to report to the acting Head of State.
As the country continues to examine its security apparatus, the question must be posed to the President as to why he failed to effectively run a committee that had otherwise operated successfully during two separate insurrections and a civil war on the basis of tradition.