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Secrets for sale

Print edition : Jul 28, 2006 T+T-
National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, who believes that RAW's in-house cadre lack the enterprise and determination to face emerging challenges.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, who believes that RAW's in-house cadre lack the enterprise and determination to face emerging challenges.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

The second major espionage scandal in two years highlights the growing vulnerablity of India's covert services.

"ALL wish to be learned," wrote the Roman poet Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, "but few are willing to pay the price." Dependent on the covert services for the information needed to negotiate an increasingly dangerous strategic environment, India's establishment has demonstrated that the 1,900-year-old dictum still holds true.

Last month, the Delhi Police arrested S.S. Paul, a computer systems operator at the National Security Council (NSC) Secretariat, on charges of espionage. It is the second major espionage scandal India's covert services have been confronted with in two years. Counter-intelligence personnel of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) believe that Paul had passed on NSC documents to Rosanna Minchew, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative working under cover as a Third Secretary at the United States' embassy in New Delhi.

Just how serious the damage is remains unclear - NSC assessments provided the Prime Minister's Office an overview of India's strategic objectives and intentions based on covert information, but contained few operational details. But the case has highlighted the growing vulnerabilities of India's covert services to the subversion of their agents. Counter-terrorism and strategic cooperation with the U.S. has been increasing ever since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and with it, the prospect of penetration of Indian agencies.

Paul is thought to have been introduced to Minchew by Mukesh Saini, a former naval officer who recently left the NSC to join a multinational corporation. Saini, who has been arrested under the Official Secrets Act, was involved in the Indo-U.S. Cyber Security Forum, a body set up in 2002 that includes representatives of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the I.B., the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Department of Revenue Intelligence (DRI). Minchew was able to leverage the introduction to good effect.

As the investigation forges ahead, the precise contours of what happened will perhaps become apparent. Saini, for example, has protested that he committed no wrong. Whether Paul's boss, RAW computer services director Ujjwal Dasgupta, was responsible for lax supervision or wilful negligence is still in doubt. What the scandal has made clear, though, is that a complex matrix of malaises within India's covert services needs to be addressed - and that time to do so is running out.

While no intelligence organisation in the world has been immune to hostile penetration, the espionage scandal demonstrates a startling unwillingness among the leadership of India's covert services to learn from bitter experience. In 2004, RAW was hit hard by the defection of Rabinder Singh, a senior officer who among other things had handled covert operations against Khalistan terrorists. Like Paul, Singh is thought to have been recruited in the course of legitimate counter-terrorism liaison with the CIA.

Singh's activities were first detected by a middle-ranking officer in RAW's operations wing itself. S. Chandrashekhar, one of several key personnel who have now left the organisation to join the private sector amidst concerns about poor service conditions, drew the attention of counter-intelligence chief Amar Bhushan to the fact that Singh had been asking for information outside of his professional areas of concern. His particular interests seemed to be RAW's cryptanalytic capabilities and agent operations overseas.

Bhushan, according to RAW insiders, was at first dismissive about the potential threat. However, pressure from his staff led to the initiation of an entrapment operation. Singh was fed genuine but dated cipher traffic generated by the U.S. mission in Islamabad which RAW signals intelligence personnel had intercepted. Singh was told that a computer hacker in Brazil had offered to sell this data to India for $100,000 - and he confirmed the suspicions about his conduct by promptly seeking more.

At this point, Bhushan made a series of errors. Searches were carried out at RAW's offices in New Delhi, alerting Singh to the existence of a hunt for a traitor. He promptly arranged to be hospitalised at the Apollo Hospital, feigning signs of cardiac illness. The I.B.'s counter-intelligence experts were not informed of the case, even though RAW lacked the capabilities to monitor Singh's multiple phone and Internet accounts. Physical surveillance against Singh was thus minimal, and he escaped through Nepal to the U.S.

None of these decisions have ever been explained, fuelling suspicions that the real reason for RAW's opaque handling of the case was political. Before Singh was allowed to escape, RAW had, after all, succeeded in identifying the traitor in its ranks and building up evidence against him. But on election eve the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) simply could not afford a scandal that would call its warm relationship with the U.S. into question - a fact that some say led National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra to stall Singh's arrest.

News of Paul's defection comes amidst what is being described as the worst-ever crisis of morale in RAW.

Frustrated by poor service conditions and promotion prospects, at least five senior officers have resigned from RAW since 2003 to pursue opportunities in the private sector. Apart from Chandrashekhar, Ashok Vajpayee, Jyoti K. Sinha, Sandeep Joshi and Vijay Tewatia are among the officers who had occupied sensitive operational positions but have chosen to leave.

RAW also appears to be facing problems retaining new recruits. Informed sources said that of the six officers recruited by the covert organisation from the civil services in 2002, four have already chosen to return to their parent organisations. Given that RAW's strength of first-class officers only just exceeds a hundred, the exodus marks a significant loss of badly needed specialists. More worryingly, the signs are that RAW will have trouble drawing talent in the future.

Paradoxically, the exodus from RAW is the consequence of efforts at reform. A core group of bureaucrats is scheduled to meet in late July to consider allowing more Indian Police Service (IPS) officers to serve on indefinite deputation to RAW. The proposals reflect National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan's apparent belief that its in-house cadre lack the enterprise and determination to face emerging challenges. RAW, in this vision, needs to be more like the I.B., which draws its leadership from the IPS.

Many intelligence experts, however, believe the proposed changes evade the real issue. In the wake of the Kargil War, a committee led by former Jammu and Kashmir Governor Girish Saxena called on the covert services to take "an honest and - in-depth stock of their present intelligence effort and capabilities to meet challenges and problems." The committee's classified 244-page report perceptively noted: "A generalist administration culture would appear to permeate the intelligence field."

The Saxena Committee, of which Narayanan was a member, also pointed to serious deficiencies in collection, reporting, collation and assessment of intelligence. It noted the need for the covert services to recruit area specialists, linguists and a wide spectrum of technical experts. Little effort, though, has been made to act on these recommendations. Not surprisingly, bureaucrats have been reluctant to free the covert services of the normal disciplines that govern civil service recruitments.

Other key recommendations of the Saxena Committee also remain in cold storage. Noting the lack of an "institutionalised system for coordination or objective-oriented interaction between the [intelligence] agencies and consumers at different levels," the committee called for the establishment of an integrated National Intelligence Board (NIB) headed by the National Security Advisor, with the chiefs of the I.B., RAW, the DRI and the Defence Intelligence Agency as its members.

For several reasons - including the NSC's reluctance to have its judgments called by intelligence professionals - the NIB was not created. Conflicts between the three armed services, in turn, have ensured that the Defence Intelligence Agency does not have a Chief of Defence Staff to report to. And while intelligence-sharing has improved as a result of the creation of the I.B.-managed Multi Agency Centre, the funds for the technological improvements called for by the Saxena Committee have not come through.

Reforms are all the more imperative because of RAW's growing counter-terrorism relationship with the CIA. RAW is exceptional amongst covert services worldwide in maintaining no permanent distinction between covert operatives who execute secret operations and personnel whose work constitutes the open face of espionage, like political analysis. As a result of the absence of this professional firewall, personnel with sensitive operational information are routinely exposed to potentially compromising contacts.

Underpinning this curious state of affairs is the lure of overseas assignments, the big prize for those who choose to work at RAW. Postings in major Western capitals and training opportunities in the U.S. or Europe are seen as payoffs, not jobs. Senior officers without language or area skills often hold sensitive Western postings. In several cases, RAW field operatives within India have been police officers drawn from the State they are assigned to operate in - something which renders their covert status absurd.

Is this an overcritical assessment? Consider, for example, the fact that RAW sent senior officers abroad for hostage-negotiation training after the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 - all of whom retired soon afterwards, leaving the organisation without a trained team. Or the fact that both RAW and the I.B. have repeatedly despatched Inspector-General and Deputy Inspector-General rank officers, most of whom use chauffeurs, for overseas training intended to coach the drivers of VIPs in defensive techniques.

It is hard to see how bringing in more IPS officers would help make RAW less vulnerable to penetration unless these practices end. Passing the civil services examination, after all, does not confer immunity from human failings. Several of those involved in past controversies involving RAW came to the service from the IPS, including Samsher Singh, K.V. Unnikrishnan and Suchit Das. Others, like Rabinder Singh, had military backgrounds. No espionage allegations, interestingly, have ever been made against RAW's direct recruits.

Perhaps RAW now needs to return to its roots. At its inception in September 1968, RAW drew personnel with a wide spectrum of specialist skills, including scientists, civil servants, policemen and soldiers - a significant break with the I.B., which evolved out of the criminal intelligence needs of William Sleeman's East India Company-era Thugee and Dacoity Department. RAW's first chief, R.N. Kao, emphasised the need for his service to have its own cadre so such skills could be developed.

Credible allegations of nepotism led the Janata Party-led government to terminate RAW recruitment in 1977. In 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reconstituted the organisation. But allegations of nepotism again surfaced and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao discreetly involved the Union Public Service Commission in the recruitment process. However, RAW was left with an unhappy caste system, pitting those drawn from the IPS and the Army against the organisation's own in-house cadre.

What can now be done? For one, a just system of pay, promotions and postings needs to be put in place. It is absurd that staff in sensitive postings have not received scheduled promotions for up to three years, simply because of rigidities in the cadre management system. Nor ought RAW to use postings to Western capitals as a means of rewarding covert operatives. Instead, appropriate financial mechanisms need to be put in place, along with a flexible system that permits fast-track promotions.

Most important of all, New Delhi needs to put in place workable firewalls that ensure that intelligence cooperation and liaison does not provide the CIA with open access to India's secrets. Commenting on the slow erosion of RAW's defences against penetration, commentator B. Raman warned in 2004 that "we might find one day that the sensitive establishments of this country have been badly penetrated under the guise of intelligence cooperation". Exactly that has now happened.

I.B. director E.S.L. Narasimhan and his counter-intelligence staff deserve applause for terminating the penetration of the NSC just months after it began - a sign that at least some lessons have been learned from the Rabinder Singh scandal.

Without serious reform, however, the next scandal is most likely just months away.