Open doors

Published : Jul 02, 2004 00:00 IST

IT sounds a little like the improbable factoids that appear on the back of breakfast cereal packets: in the summer of 2002, the Government of India actually paid the Central Intelligence Agency mole in its ranks to meet his handlers in the United States.

Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) defector Rabinder Singh's 2002 visit to the U.S. points to the dangers of the increasingly indiscriminate liaison between Indian and Western intelligence services, conducted under the pretext of counter-terrorism cooperation. Perhaps the most curious aspect of Rabinder Singh's 2002 government-funded visit to the U.S. is that he had no reason to travel there. The counter-terrorism course he attended focussed on hijacking and hostage negotiation, skills the South-East Asia analyst had no need of.

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calling for files on a dozen disappearances and suspect personnel in RAW's ranks, attention has focussed on the growing depth of the U.S.' ongoing multi-billion dollar facilitation of counter-terrorism cooperation. Intelligence officers, most of whom do not drive their cars from their homes to work, have been abroad to learn about everything from offensive-defensive vehicle-handling techniques to VIP protection - lessons useless for their normal day jobs. Notably, few of the officers who have shown a desire for such learning have attended the many courses available within the country.

Within India's intelligence establishment, there is growing concern about the unspoken costs of the new liaison and cooperation procedures. Under the National Democratic Alliance government, RAW, the Intelligence Bureau and the Defence Intelligence Agency were all authorised to make contact with their counterparts overseas, often with little monitoring. As a consequence, hundreds of Indian agents have been exposed, the term professionals use to describe individuals whose real jobs are known to foreign intelligence organisations. "As things stand," says a senior RAW officer, "we hardly have anyone left who can serve in a genuine, covert role."

Until recently, RAW alone was authorised to have such contacts - and the job was restricted to a select few within its ranks. From its inception in 1968, RAW's first boss, R.N. Kao, held meetings with his counterparts in the U.S., the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. Much of the liaison was essentially political in character - what is today known as "back channel diplomacy" - but RAW's reconnaissance unit, the Aviation Research Centre received technical assistance from the U.S. in return for information on China. Through the 1970s, the character of liaison shifted with political trends, as India leaned towards the Soviet Union for its security needs.

The last years of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's time in power, and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's subsequent regime, saw a shift. Israel was one new axis of liaison. Avionics equipment for the ARC, for example, began to be sourced through Israel after RAW established contact with Mossad, and some training programmes were also conducted for the National Security Guard and the Special Protection Group. However, this contact was carefully monitored. RAW protests, for example, led officials to shoot down plans for an Israeli delegation to meet with Sharad Pawar, now Union Minister.

At once, links with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) opened up in the wake of its support to terrorism in Punjab, and the near-war triggered by Operation Brasstacks. Brokered by Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan, whose wife was of Pakistani origin, a top Indian spymaster met ISI chief Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul in Amman and Geneva. General Gul, sources told Frontline, admitted that Pakistan would continue to offer arms to anti-India elements who sought its help - but would not initiate such activity. In return, Pakistan quietly handed over some soldiers who had sought shelter there after the mutiny which followed Operation Bluestar.

Now, however, the situation has been transfigured. Ongoing investigations of Rabinder Singh's case show just how easily liaison and training visits can be misused. Colleagues who went with him on the U.S. visit have told staff from RAW's Counter-Intelligence Security Division that the officer, whose family was in the U.S., generally spent his evenings alone. When other Indians officers would gather together in the bar or for dinner, Rabinder Singh would opt out, claiming he was visiting relatives. Although he submitted reports to RAW on all foreigners he met during the course of his visit, the organisation had no means of verifying the accuracy of the officer's statements.

What is clear is that the U.S., which has trained over 31,000 personnel from 127 countries since it began offering anti-terrorism assistance in 1983, is finding the access it is getting very useful. In 2002 alone, the last year for which figures are available, the U.S. hosted 80 courses for officers from India, along with 17 other countries in Asia and Africa. "Intelligence cooperation and liaison have always been chaotic," says former RAW officer and analyst B. Raman, "but we cannot afford complacency any more."

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