July 18, 2002


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B Raman

The dangers of intelligence cooperation

Intelligence agencies generally have three functions -- intelligence collection, counter-intelligence and covert action. Agencies are expected to have the capability to collect intelligence of relevance to national security by penetrating state and non-state actors perceived to be likely to pose a threat to national security; to prevent such actors from collecting intelligence [counter-intelligence] about us by similarly penetrating our national setup; and to undertake clandestine and deniable political, para-diplomatic or paramilitary actions in foreign territories [covert action] to achieve a national objective when the use of open and normal political, diplomatic or military means for achieving those objectives is considered unfeasible or inadvisable.

Collection of useful human intelligence depends on the ability to identify persons in sensitive establishments dealing with secret information and make them part with the secrets, either through personal friendship or through monetary and other incentives, or through other means such as sexual seduction [honey traps], blackmail, etc.

The professional competence of an intelligence officer depends on his ability to penetrate the setup of others and to prevent others from similarly penetrating the setup of our country. His training is largely focused on giving him this competence.

Intelligence officers are thus always on the lookout for opportunities to come into contact with persons having access to secrets. To prevent such persons from falling into their trap, governments all over the world have laid down certain rules and regulations regarding contacts of serving government servants with foreigners. These include taking permission before officially or socially interacting with a foreigner, submitting a written report on what transpired at such interactions, surrendering to the government all gifts received from foreigners and taking its permission to retain any of them, keeping the government informed in writing of all personal foreign travels and expenditure incurred on overseas education of their children, explaining how they raised the required funds, etc. In certain countries, these rules apply even to retired government servants for three years after their retirement.

Foreign intelligence agencies particularly value opportunities for penetrating our intelligence setup for three reasons:

Intelligence officers generally have greater access to the political leadership than other bureaucrats and hence are likely to know what is in the mind of the leadership and to be in a position to influence their thinking/actions. Softening them and making them obliged to a foreign intelligence agency could make them close their eyes to the penetration efforts of that agency in our territory. Through a softened intelligence officer, they might be able to identify their own government servants who might be working for our intelligence agencies.

The post-World War II period saw an increase in co-operation amongst the intelligence agencies of friendly countries for mutual assistance in matters relating to counter-subversion, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. India has had a long history of intelligence co-operation not only with the other member-countries of the Commonwealth excepting Pakistan, but also with the erstwhile USSR and other Communist countries of East Europe and, more importantly, with the USA.

Active and fruitful intelligence co-operation with USA dates back to the early 1950s during Jawaharlal Nehru's prime ministership. This picked up momentum after the Sino-Indian War of 1962. The momentum was maintained even during the troubled days of Indo-US relations after the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Many senior Indian intelligence officers of the pre-1990s had undergone some intelligence training in the UK or USA. Indira Gandhi diversified this co-operation by extending it to the intelligence agencies of not only the continental European countries, but also of some Islamic countries well disposed towards India and sharing its distrust of Pakistan.

While thus encouraging clandestine intelligence co-operation with other countries for India's national interest, Indira Gandhi was more aware than any other political leader of India -- before or after her -- that such co-operation was a multi-edged sword. That if not handled properly, it could damage our national security by facilitating the penetration efforts of foreign agencies in our territory. It could confuse our political leadership and induce it into wrong decisions or actions by the planting of disinformation on them through intelligence and other officers enjoying the confidence of the political leadership, and by playing different government departments and intelligence agencies against one another.

She was particularly concerned over the dangers of US intelligence agencies taking advantage of the co-operation with their Indian counterparts to penetrate our setup and soften our government servants occupying sensitive positions and make them amenable to US influence and favourable to US interests, thereby damaging our national security. She viewed intelligence co-operation with foreign countries as a sword that should be under the personal control and supervision of the prime minister.

She had laid down strict dos and don'ts about this matter. These were done both orally and through orders written in her own hand, without even dictating them to her personal assistants. Examples:

  • Each and every instance of intelligence co-operation with a foreign country should be with her personal clearance and she should be kept informed of the action taken.
  • All intelligence co-operation would be only through the Research and Analysis Wing, which would act as the nodal agency, maintain written records of all contacts with foreign intelligence agencies, and act as the interface between foreign intelligence agencies and Indian agencies needing their assistance.
  • Foreign intelligence agencies should not be allowed to interact directly with any government department, agency or individual officer bypassing the R&AW under the pretext of facilitating counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism co-operation.
In pursuance of these instructions, R&AW used to maintain detailed records of all interactions with foreign intelligence agencies in one place, periodically review the usefulness of the intelligence co-operation, and keep the prime minister informed. Every time a new leader took over as prime minister, the head of R&AW would prepare a detailed note on the history of all intelligence co-operation for his/her information and brief him/her personally on the matter.

Like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao also had a good understanding of the need for a strict control through a single nodal agency over all contacts with foreign intelligence agencies, particularly those of USA, which have immense financial and other resources and are aggressive in their penetration efforts.

Despite this strict drill, the Central Intelligence Agency succeeded in penetrating the R&AW itself at senior levels in the 1980s and the Intelligence Bureau in the 1990s by taking advantage of the alleged failure of individual officers to observe the dos and don'ts. These illustrated the need for further tightening the drill by identifying and closing the loopholes.

In recent years, the increase in acts of terrorism and the understandable emphasis on the need for strengthening international intelligence co-operation have led to a dilution of the effectiveness of the counter-penetration measures laid down in the past. As a result, innumerable contact points are believed to have emerged, with no centralised system of control, supervision and record-keeping and with even many who are not professional intelligence officers and who have not had the benefit of counter-intelligence and counter-penetration training jumping into the game of intelligence co-operation. Nothing would gladden the hearts of the trained penetration experts of foreign intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, more than the perceived loosening of control.

Unless this dangerous trend is checked and reversed, we might find one day that the sensitive establishments of this country have been badly penetrated under the guise of intelligence cooperation.

The writer was additional secretary in the Cabinet secretariat, Government of India.

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