Our Man in New Delhi

Published : Jul 02, 2004 00:00 IST

Weeks after the `disappearance' of Rabinder Singh, the intelligence establishment has no explanations to offer about his whereabouts, how he evaded RAW's mole-watchers and why the top brass dithered in acting quickly against him.

IT is probable that none of the Company Representative's friends will ever hear from him again. He could be in the United States, living with his family under an assumed name. Then again, he could be buried in an unmarked grave, a bullet through his head. The truth is, only a few people know for sure, and they are not talking.

Last month, Rabinder Singh, the Joint Secretary handling South-East Asia in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), suddenly went on leave. He knew he was under surveillance by RAW's mole-watchers, its counter-intelligence staff, after being caught photocopying documents in violation of in-house security rules, and that his bosses were debating the seriousness of his crime. He may also have sensed that RAW believed he had been passing on information to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), known in the business as The Company. Then, one evening, Rabinder Singh disappeared.

Weeks after the scandal broke, no plausible explanation has been offered about where he went, how he was able to evade RAW's watchers, and why top officials dithered for so long in deciding what to do with him.

Only the bare contours of the scandal are known so far. An Amritsar resident from an affluent landed family of Jats, Rabinder Singh had served in the Indian Army as a Major before volunteering to join RAW. He served with distinction in Amritsar during Operation Bluestar, the counter-terrorist assault on the Golden Temple in 1984. At some point after this, he again attracted the attention of his superiors, this time by procuring classified U.S. government documentation. Rabinder Singh's source seems to have been one of his relatives, a U.S. citizen who has worked for over two decades with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a donor organisation that Indian intelligence suspects is a front for the CIA. Rabinder Singh's relative is alleged to have visited India regularly on official work, sometimes staying at his residence. This relationship, RAW investigators claim, enabled Rabinder Singh to pass on documents with only a minimal risk of exposure.

At some point, however, RAW began to suspect that Rabinder Singh was working for his source, and not the other way around. Newspaper reports have suggested that his operations were detected because of an inadvertent reference to him made in casual conversation by the CIA's station chief for India, who sources identified as a U.S. Embassy official posted to New Delhi in 2002. However, sources familiar with RAW's international investigation told Frontline that this was not, in fact, the case. Rabinder Singh's energetic use of his office photocopier had attracted the attention of his subordinate staff, who reported it to RAW's counter-intelligence section. Colleagues also reported that Rabinder Singh, a generous host, often asked questions about sensitive issues that he had no ostensible reason to know about - something of a sin in the espionage world. His briefcase is believed to have been searched shortly before his leave began. Documents that ought not to have been photocopied were found, but the fact was that Rabinder Singh did not have access to documentation on the agency's most sensitive areas of work in Pakistan and Central Asia, a mitigating factor.

RAW's mole-watchers also dug up old files that made it clear that Rabinder Singh had been facing severe financial problems for several years. Some of the suspicion focussed on his financial circumstances. In 1992-1993, sources say, his daughter was seriously injured in a road accident. Using the offices of then Minister of State for External Affairs R.L. Bhatia, Rabinder Singh attempted to secure a posting to Washington, D.C. The request was shot down, possibly because some in RAW were concerned that such an assignment in such circumstances would make him available for recruitment by the CIA. "My interest in the whole affair was purely compassionate," Bhatia told Frontline. "Singh said he needed a lot of money to pay for his daughter's treatment, and that the Washington posting would help." However, Bhatia admitted that he made no effort to ascertain Rabinder Singh's integrity before pushing his case, relying only on pleas from two Amritsar businessmen.

Sooner or later, the Cabinet Secretariat will have to offer a coherent explanation of what happened - or, in time-honoured fashion, leak it to the media. If Rabinder Singh has indeed defected to the U.S., heads are likely to roll within RAW for their failure to stop him. Notably, sources in the Delhi Police say that no instructions to stop the officer from leaving the country were issued to them; nor do similar instructions seem to have been given at other international airports. This would suggest that for some hours or days after learning of Rabinder Singh's disappearance, RAW did not see fit to close escape routes. The agency will also have to review its security procedures. Officers of the rank of Joint Secretary and above are currently not searched when leaving the organisation's offices on Lodhi Road, a system that will most likely change. Technical counter-measures to prevent the digital copying of documents through portable devices will also have to be introduced.

One larger lesson can also be learned from the affair. Despite all the global spy bonhomie that is supposed to have broken out after 9/11, the CIA, like any competent espionage organisation, has continued to target India. The Pokhran-II nuclear tests of 1998 brutally exposed the CIA's human intelligence limitations in South Asia, and it does not wish to be caught by surprise again. India's establishment is more vulnerable now than at any point in the past. The large number of politicians, bureaucrats and military officers whose children study or work in the U.S. provide an easy source of influence. Indeed, alarming numbers of them seem to be exceptionally meritorious students who get full scholarships. Efforts to recruit from this pool are not new. In the early 1980s, the son of then RAW chief N. Narasimhan left the U.S. after efforts were made to approach the spy chief through him. Narasimhan's son had been denied a visa extension, and was offered its renewal in return for his cooperation with the U.S.' intelligence services. "Not all," says a senior RAW officer, "would respond with such probity."

Top intelligence officials also believe that the Rabinder Singh scandal points to the danger of growing and sometimes indiscriminate contact between Indian and foreign intelligence services - often carried out under the cover of counter-terrorism work. Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, RAW alone was authorised to conduct such liaisons. These restraints, however, have loosened in recent years. Former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, for example, met the heads of the CIA and Israel's Mossad along with Intelligence Bureau staff. Brajesh Mishra, former Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is known to have had direct contact with the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence as well. While meetings in themselves are not inappropriate, they can lead to the breakdown of protocols - for example, that intelligence officers will meet a foreign contact only in teams of two - and eventual penetration. In the past, a tight lid was kept on such contacts. In the early 1980s, for example, RAW shot down efforts by an authorised Mossad team to meet Sharad Pawar, who was in the Congress then.

Precautions of this kind existed for good reason. Western intelligence agencies have been caught attempting to penetrate Indian intelligence at several times in the past; in November 1997, for example, the Intelligence Bureau video and wiretap surveillance of an Additional Director who was, ironically, the head of its own counter-intelligence wing. Suspicion of his activities first arose after an electronic sweep revealed that a mobile phone being used by a U.S. woman diplomat was registered in his name. Evidence emerged that he had unauthorised contact with two U.S. diplomats, principally a woman officer posted in New Delhi. Then Bureau chief Arun Bhagat confronted him with this evidence, which included footage of the time he had spent with the woman at a resort on the New Delhi-Jaipur highway, after the officer denied any wrongdoing. The Additional Director resigned, ending a promising career, although there was no evidence of actual espionage.

Earlier, in 1985-1986, RAW counter-intelligence used video evidence to compel one of its field officers in Chennai to admit that he had passed on sensitive information to the CIA and Sri Lankan intelligence. The officer at first denied any wrongdoing. However, RAW confronted him with footage showing him making contact with a U.S. national on a beach in Chennai and at a resort in Kerala. RAW had sought to tighten in-house security after the public fracas that broke out in the wake of the scandal - but the Rabinder Singh affair shows these now need to be further reviewed. The Chennai case was a particular embarrassment because it came hot on the heels of another spy scandal. A low-level functionary in the Ministry of Defence was arrested in January 1985 for passing on secrets to French and Polish intelligence. The functionary succeeded in subverting several officials with little other than a few visits to a New Delhi nightclub and some Scotch whiskey.

The more things change, goes the old adage, the more they stay the same. Rabinder Singh's case shows, if nothing else, that it takes a lot more than a little whiskey to corrupt Indian intelligence these days. How things proceed from here will be interesting to watch, particularly because of their potential impact on India-U.S. relations. In the wake of the scandal involving the Additonal Director, the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of External Affairs had argued against expelling the U.S. diplomats involved. Then Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta, however, had put his foot down, asserting that failure to act would show India in a poor light. How the United Progressive Alliance government deals with the fallout from the Rabinder Singh case will show just how determined it is to restructure the India-U.S. relationship as a partnership of equals - and how much it cares for the long-running debate on introducing reform and accountability in the intelligence services.

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