Lanka’s National Security Apparatus: Its Tempestuous and Unholy History

Edward Gunawardena, in Island, 22 July 2019 where the title is  “The National Security Council and police intelligence”

Since the happenings on Easter Sunday 2019, much discussion has been focused on the National Security Council – the premier decision making body on matters concerning National Security. With obscure beginnings, commencing in the early years of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime in the sixties, the NSC has a history of over six decades. Concerned persons in governance, particularly the political stakeholders, appear to be clueless as to the composition, responsibilities, functions and the manner of operation of this organization.

A discussion of the NSC by itself without reference to the Intelligence Services Division (ISD) of the Police, that later came to be known as the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) and SIS today, will be futile because it is the latter that veritably provides the grist for the NSC to mill. The SIS of today is the successor to the Special Branch of the CID that originated with the Kotelawala administration in the early 50’s of the last century. Some names of the early Special Branch officers that come to mind are Superintendants Scharenguivel (pronounced SCARNIVEL), John Attygalle who became IGP, D.C.T. Pate, P.R. de S. Seneviratne and LMP de Silva. I have nostalgic memories of these stalwarts of the past.

Even with the first serious threat to the security of the state that came in the form of the attempted coup d’état in 1962, there was no change in the status quo of the Special Branch. However, the strong man in Mrs. B’s government, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, more to impose his might and authority summoned regular meetings mainly to review the security of the Magazine Prison that held the coup suspects. Others who attended these meetings that were usually held at Temple Trees were Deputy Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Permanent Secretary, Defence and External Affairs N Q Dias, the Service Chiefs, IGP and the DIG CID. Occasionally these meetings were held at Horagolla, the country residence of the PM, and the Weke Walawwa in the Kirindawela Police area – the country hideout of Minister Felix Dias. Apart from the Police, Horagolla and Weke were guarded by large groups of volunteers, particularly the political supporters of the Bandaranaikes.

As the ASP Gampaha and being responsible for the security of the Prime Minister and Minister Felix Dias when they visited Horagolla and Weke respectively they were both pleasant and friendly. Whilst the Prime Minister often invited me for meals, reminiscent of the Peradeniya days, Felix who was a heavy pipe and cigarette smoker unabashedly ‘sharked’ cigarettes from me. When I left Gampaha in 1963 to take charge of the Kegalle police district the threat had subsided. All the suspects had been indicted and secured behind bars in the Welikade prison.

Remarkably these meetings had no prepared agendas and minutes were not kept. The men and women who attended were persons of honour and erudition. Each made his or her own notes and acted with the highest sense of responsibility. They read out their reports. After discussions and decisions all related paperwork were destroyed. The composition, functioning, manner of summoning etc. were not formally laid down. Minister Felix was absolutely thorough. There were no Gazettes and instructional circulars. My belief is that nothing pertaining to these meetings is available even in the National Archives.

It was these meetings that continued to be held sporadically, discussing in particular Special Branch reports that assumed greater importance with the outbreak of the first JVP uprising, which could well be considered the forerunner to the present National Security Council.

After the April ’71 uprising there were notable changes in police operations, particularly in the fields of intelligence and investigations. Although Stanley Senanayake remained the IGP, a former IGP and Confidant of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike – Eleric Abeygoonewardene, was appointed an Addl. Secretary and placed in charge of all investigations pertaining to the uprising. Cyril Herath who was the SP Anuradhapura was appointed Director of the Intelligence Services Div. and tasked with the revamping of the Intelligence set-up.

Cyril, who was my contemporary at Peradeniya, was an exceptionally capable officer. Within a very short time he had not only found an ideal new home for the ISD at No.10, Cambridge Place, but more importantly built a brilliant team of Intelligence Professionals from perhaps the cream of the Police Service. S.B W de Silva, Zerny Wijesuriya, Upali Seneviratne, Tony Mahat and Gaya Pathikirikorale are a few of the names that I can recall from memory. When I succeeded Cyril as the Director of the ISD it was a well oiled machine working to perfection. He went on to head the Police Dept. and earned for himself a reputation as a fiercely independent IGP.

At the time I was the Director of the ISD the weekly meetings of the NSC were presided over by President J.R. Jayewardene. Others who attended regularly were the Prime Minister R. Premadasa, Dy. Minister of Defence T.B. Werepitiye, Secretary Defence Col. Dharmapala and later Gen. D.S. Attygalle, the IGP and Service Commanders. At different times other Cabinet Ministers and Senior officials such as the DG Customs or a G.A of a District were present on invitation. Never did a member of the opposition sit on the NSC.

There was good reason for the opposition to be kept out. Within the term Security of the State is in-grained the security of the government too. Everywhere in the world the opposition resorts to actions to embarrass the government e.g. lightning strikes that can cripple essential services; or even acts of sabotage. I remember once having brought to the notice of the NSC the conduct of a senior public official with leanings to the opposition, systematically delaying the opening of Letters of Credit for the import of essential pharmaceutical drugs leading to the shortages in the market.

When I reported an impending Port strike that would have delayed the unloading of essential foodstuffs, President Jayewardene who had good personal relationships with reputed Union leaders like D.G. William and L.W. Panditha, sent for them and successfully prevailed on them to desist from striking. Matters such as these could not have been discussed with opposition members sitting on the NSC. To digress, it is pertinent to note that apart from TU leaders, reputed and revered left leaders such as N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva and Pieter Keuneman were mutual friends of the President, with a high degree of respect and regard for one another. What a contrast to the abominable relationships that exist among the idiotic and low grade politicians of today!

The disciplines of security and intelligence that have always been shrouded in secrecy and seldom or never discussed in the open, became the most widely discussed topics in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. Hordes of politicians, particularly Members of Parliament who do not even possess the O’levels whose exposure to the subject did not extend beyond their few servile bodyguards; and sections of the all powerful Buddhist clergy, began to dissect the functioning of the state security and intelligence services that comprise a relatively small number of highly trained dedicated professionals.


Security functions with the least documentation. Success has come by because of the discipline, dedication and professionalism of the security personnel. The SIS of the Police consists of specially selected and trained men and women, who can work independently without Standing Orders or circulars to guide them at every time. This is what politicians, particularly MPs need to understand. And it is for this reason that even the hawkeyed print media has failed to lay hands on the minutes of the NSC’s crucial meetings. Fools do rush in where angels fear to tread!

Intelligence officers maintain a low profile. They are highly disciplined, do not brag or talk of what they do, observe the need to know principle, and are committed to secrecy and anonymity. Importantly, they avoid photographers. There are no text books on security and intelligence. Required expertise is passed down from person to person respecting anonymity and secrecy. Even such instructional meetings are conducted in a clandestine manner.

It was disappointing indeed to observe that many members of the Parliamentary Select Committee members probing the Easter Sunday carnage did not appear to have a thorough understanding of the functioning of the SIS and the NSC. They certainly would have looked a body with higher credibility had they cared to pocket their pride and gone through an orientation programme of a few hours at the SIS.



Leave a comment

Filed under accountability, authoritarian regimes, governance, historical interpretation, legal issues, life stories, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, power politics, security, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, terrorism, unusual people

Leave a Reply