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Home > India > News > Columnists > B Raman


What the CIA chief's visit to India, Pak means

March 23, 2009

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Leon Panetta, who took over as the 19th Director of the Central Intelligence Agency on February 13, is presently on his first overseas tour. After having visited India from March 18 to 20, he proceeded to Pakistan for discussions with Pakistani Army and intelligence officers and political leaders.

Panetta, who chose India for his first overseas visit since assuming office, arrived in New Delhi [Images], along with Peter Burleigh, a 67-year-old retired American career diplomat, who has been designated as the "interim Ambassador [Images]" of the US to India.

The Barack Obama [Images] administration is understood to have put all major decisions relating to India including political-level bilateral visits at cabinet level and the designation of the new ambassador is on hold till the elections to the Lok Sabha are over and a new government is in position in New Delhi by May-end. However, this decision would not affect exchange of visits at the senior level of bureaucrats. Moreover, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] is due to meet President Obama for the first time on the margins of the G-20 summit at London [Images] next month.

Panetta, whose parents had migrated to California from Italy [Images], served as the chief of staff to then President Bill Clinton [Images] from 1994-1997. This was when he became close to Bill and Hillary Clinton [Images]. It is believed that he still maintains this close personal friendship with the Clintons and that Bill Clinton played a role in the surprise decision of Obama in January last to nominate him as the new Director of the CIA, despite the fact that the 70-year-old Panetta, who has become the oldest chief of the CIA in its history, has never had any exposure to professional intelligence work except for three years from 1964 to 66 when he had served as an army intelligence officer. His area expertise is limited to Iraq. He had served as a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group set up by the Congress in 1996 to make an independent assessment of the war in Iraq.

Obama's nomination of Panetta came in for criticism not only from some retired officers of the US intelligence community, but also from some members of the Congressional Intelligence Oversight Committees.

It is believed that Obama chose him as the director because of his excellent reputation in the past as a good manager. Knowledgeable people say that Obama, who is keen to tone up the administration and man management in the CIA and rid it of unethical practices in the war against terrorism, felt that only an outsider would be able to do it without covering up past unethical practices.

Moreover, under George Tenet during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the CIA had come in for criticism for avoiding projecting the true ground situation to President George Bush [Images]. It allegedly told Bush and his Vice-President Dick Cheney what they liked to be told and not what they ought to have been told. Panetta is expected to correct the analytical methods of the CIA in order not to let its reports and analyses be influenced by the preconceptions of the President.

In his first message to the CIA officers, Panetta has been quoted as saying: "When President Obama asked if I would accept this assignment, he said he wanted someone he could trust, who was independent, and who would call them as he sees them. Throughout my 40-year career in government, I have made it a point to speak honestly to my colleagues, my coworkers, my constituents, and my President. I hope that we can speak honestly to each other and to those we serve."

Till 2004, the director of the CIA was also the director, Central Intelligence, and in that capacity, in addition to running the CIA, co-ordinated the working of the entire intelligence community. In 2004, acting on a recommendation of the National Commission, which inquired into the 9/11 terrorist strikes, Bush separated the two functions and created a separate and a higher level post of Director, National Intelligence to handle the work of co-ordination. From the pre-2004 status of the first among equals, the director, CIA has now become one among equals in the intelligence community. Despite this, he occupies a very high position in policy-making relating to national security and in that capacity, Panetta will be in the inner core of Obama's advisers.

If Obama chose Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, to pay the first overseas visit at the cabinet level to Japan [Images], South Korea, Indonesia and China to underline the importance attached by his administration to this region, it is significant that the first overseas visit of an inner core policy adviser has been to India and Pakistan. This underlines the importance attached by Obama to the US relations with India and to the importance of Pakistan from the point of the fight against terrorism.

It is interesting that the CIA, India's Research & Analysis Wing and the Intelligence Bureau all have new heads, who took over in the last 11 weeks. Rajiv Mathur, a career intelligence officer, took over as the director of the IB, on January 1, K C Verma, as Secretary (R), the head of the R&AW, on February 1 and Panetta on February 13. Whereas Panetta is totally new to the profession, Mathur and Verma have over two decades of exposure to professional intelligence work. They would have got going from the moment they took over, but Panetta will take time to get a hang of the operational work before he is able to impart his stamp.

It is equally interesting to note that just as Obama nominated Panetta as the chief of the CIA to tone up its man management and administration and to rid it of unhealthy practices, the Manmohan Singh government reportedly inducted Verma from the IB to the R&AW with a similar objective. There has been as much criticism of the internal functioning of the R&AW as there was of the CIA.

One could assess without fear of contradiction that the New Delhi visit of Panetta, who is still to find his feet as an intelligence chief, would have had a much larger political objective for Obama. Firstly, to reassure Indian leaders that Clinton's first visit to China does not mean the downgrading of the US relations with India. Secondly, to reassure India of continued US assistance in the investigation of the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai [Images] and continued US pressure on Pakistan to investigate the case seriously and sincerely. Thirdly, to assess the pre-election political scene in India for his President.

The nomination of Burleigh as an "interim Ambassador" and his travelling together with Panetta to New Delhi underline the US interest in monitoring and assessing the pre-election political scene. The Obama administration's avoidance of any major policy initiatives and pronouncements with regard to India is motivated by its desire to keep its options open and not to burn in advance its bridges with any dispensation coming to office in New Delhi after the elections. The US has many retired diplomats, who have spent many years of their career in the sub-continent. All of them are quite knowledgeable on India -- but each only on some aspects of India. Some are knowledgeable on the Congress party, some on the Bharatiya Janata Party [Images] and other Hindutva groups and some others, who had served in the sub-continent in the cold war years, are knowledgeable on the Communist parties and their suspected links with the then USSR and China.

Burleigh belongs to the third category. He had his first exposure to the sub-continent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the early 1960s. From the Peace Corps, he gravitated to the State Department and spent some years of his diplomatic career in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka [Images]. As a junior diplomat, he had served in the US Embassy in Colombo from 1968 to 1970 and in New Delhi from 1973 to 1975. He also served as the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1995 to 1997. In one of the web sites of the old Peace Corps volunteers, he had entered the following post about himself: "After graduating from Colgate in 1963, I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal, then a year of graduate study in South Asian affairs at the University of Pennsylvania, and another year in Nepal on a student Fulbright grant.

On returning from Nepal in 1967, I joined the State Department and was assigned -- you guessed it -- to Sri Lanka, where I was a junior officer trainee until 1970. I learned the language, Sinhala, at that time and, courtesy of Senator Jesse Helms (who, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held up final confirmation of 35 of us), was able to spend another seven months in 1995 resurrecting that language ability. I use the language a lot, with Buddhist monks and village people in particular. English is widely used in government and the commercial sector of the economy. Between 1970 and December 1995 I served in India, Bahrain and Nepal in positions of increasing seniority, and for the past 13 years I was in Washington in a series of jobs. These included three deputy assistant secretary positions as well as coordinator for counter-terrorism. The last position carried with it ambassadorial rank, though I was based in Washington."

When he was posted in the US Embassy in New Delhi from 1973 to 75, the Indian Communists and anti-US magazines like the Blitz used to accuse him of being a CIA officer working under a diplomatic cover. While it is difficult to prove this, it needs to be noted that he had served as the Counter-Terrorism Coordinator in the US State Department in Washington DC in 1991-92. Past holders of this post had a CIA or FBI background,

It is intriguing that the Obama administration should have taken an old cold warrior such as Burleigh out of the circuit of retired diplomats and sent him to New Delhi to hold the fort in the US Embassy during the pre-poll interregnum. Has he been sent to monitor and assess the chances of the Third Front and the likely impact on India's policy towards the US should the Third Front which has the Communists as partners come to power? A valid question, but difficult to answer. The Congress and the BJP are known quantities to the State Department and the US wouldn't be unduly concerned if either of them comes to power at the head of a coalition. But the Third Front with its Communists is an unknown kettle of fish.

Panetta's visit to New Delhi during which he had publicised meetings with Home Minister P Chidambram, in addition to meetings with M K Narayanan, the National Security Adviser, Verma,and Mathur, has been criticised by the Communist Party of India-Marxist. In a statement, the party's politbureau said this was the first time that the CIA chief was accorded a meeting with the Union home minister. Apart from meeting his intelligence counterparts in India, Panetta was received at the political level, signalling the new status of the CIA in India.

It added: "The CIA is notorious for its interventions in the political affairs of various countries including destabilising governments considered inimical to US interests. The development is a pointer to how things have changed under the Manmohan Singh government. India is fast becoming like Pakistan where the CIA and the FBI chiefs meet with the interior minister and prime minister.

The role being played by the US security and military agencies in the country and the manner in which the Congress-led government is promoting such ties should be a matter of serious concern for all those who wish to protect national sovereignty and the integrity of the country's democratic system."

The Indian intelligence has been having a liaison relationship with the CIA since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. This was handled by the IB till September, 1968, and thereafter by the R&AW. Many CIA chiefs had visited India in the past. Their visits used to be graded as top secret. Their programme in New Delhi used to be restricted to professional discussions with the heads of the IB and the R&AW and a courtesy call on the prime minister.

This was for security and political reasons. Before international terrorism became a major source of concern, the security reasons mainly related to possible threats to the physical security of the visiting CIA chief from the intelligence agencies of the Communist countries. After the collapse of the USSR and other communist regimes in East Europe and after the normalisation of the US relations with China, this concern is no longer there.

But, since the late 1980s, terrorism has become a major source of concern. CIA officials responsible for the security of their director and their officials posted in India for liaison purposes used to prefer that the visits be kept secret. Indian agencies too preferred secrecy because they were rightly concerned that if the visits were open, jihadi terrorist threats to India and to US nationals and interests in India, including to the US diplomatic and consular missions in India, might increase.

This position started changing when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. The visit of George Tenet, the then Director of the CIA, to India was kept a secret, but the visits of the No.2 to Tenet were publicised. L K Advani [Images], the then home minister, came to be associated with the visits of CIA officials to New Delhi. Their programmes included a courtesy call on the home minister. Not only that, Advani too, during his visit to the US in 2002, reportedly called on Tenet in his office.

This caused some eyebrow-raising because while it is normal for a visiting bureaucrat -- as a CIA director is -- to call on important political leaders of the host country, it is unusual for a senior political leader ranking No 2 in the government to call on a bureaucrat of the host country. Pakistani leaders, in their eagerness to cultivate the US, do it often, but Indian leaders had not done it in the past. There was some unhappiness in sections of the Indian intelligence community that this could downgrade the importance and status of Indian intelligence chiefs in the eyes of their US counterparts. If US intelligence officials have easy access to our senior ministers, why should they bother about our intelligence chiefs?

Panetta's visit to Pakistan is evidently related to the messy political situation there and to the on-going review by the Obama administration of its strategy to counter Al Qaeda [Images] and the Taliban [Images]. There is a general acceptance among the advisers of Obama that no strategy can succeed without the co-operation of Pakistan and that, at the same time, exercising too much pressure on Pakistan can prove counter-productive and add to the political instability. The search for a credible policy of carrots (enhanced military and economic aid) and sticks (continuing Predator strikes and threats of more if the Pakistan army [Images] does not act) is still continuing. The CIA plays an important role in this search.

The Predator strikes -- over 30 since last September and six of them since Obama assumed office -- are handled by the CIA. Obama has not yet taken a policy decision on the recommendation by his advisers to extend the Predator strikes to attack the hide-outs of the Neo Taliban of Afghanistan in Balochistan. There has been strong opposition to this extension not only from Pakistani political and military leaders, but also from some US analysts and Congressmen, who fear this could turn messy and add to the political instability in Pakistan.

If Obama ultimately decides to extend the strikes to Balochistan, the CIA will have to co-ordinate them. One of the purposes of Panetta's visit will be to make an on-the-spot assessment of the implications before a final decision is taken.


B Raman



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