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Rediff.com  » News » Exclusive! Kerry, Burns, Biswal not informed of action against Khobragade

Exclusive! Kerry, Burns, Biswal not informed of action against Khobragade

December 18, 2013 11:56 IST

The investigation into and action being taken by the US State Department's Diplomatic Security Service against Dr Devyani Khobragade were not shared with Secretary of State John F Kerry, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns or Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal, reveals Rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa from Washington, DC.

Senior American administration and law enforcement sources have told Rediff.com that the political and career leadership at the State Department -- from Secretary of State John F Kerry, down to Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and the newly minted Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal -- had absolutely no clue that at the time they were meeting with Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, that an arrest warrant was being prepared by US Attorney Preet Bharara's office to arrest India's Deputy Consul General in New York Devyani Khobragade, left, on visa fraud charges -- on the strength of an affidavit provided it by the State Department.

Ironically, at the time Kerry dropped in at the meeting between Burns and Singh and the respective delegations, and both sides were appreciating the camaraderie between Washington and New Delhi -- so much so that India officials said, "The partnership has reached a level where you can discuss pretty much anything, including issues where there are differences in perspective" -- unbeknownst to them, US Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of New York Debra Freeman had signed off on the warrant requested by Bharara for US Marshalls to arrest, handcuff and strip-search Dr Khobragade, which action set off an unprecedented diplomatic row between India and the US.

The sources said that the investigation into the alleged fraud, conducted by Special Agent Mark J Smith with the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, had been going on for over a year.

The DSS was working in concert with the State Department's consular services bureau, which in turn had alerted the Indian embassy in September that such an investigation against Dr Khobragade was under way and action could be taken for violation of US laws.

However, this information and its gravity of an imminent arrest had not reached those dealing with India like Burns and Biswal or Sujatha Singh's diplomatic counterpart, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.

Like it happened during the Benghazi fiasco, where then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was not informed of the security concerns expressed by Ambassador Chris Stevens, the US envoy to Libya, who was later killed along with three other Americans by terrorists who stormed the Benghazi consulate, the investigation and action being formulated by the DSS against Dr Khobragade had not been conveyed to Burns, Sherman or Biswal.

Evidently, Special Agent Smith had scrupulously prepared his case anticipating the fallout from an arrest of a diplomat like Dr Khobragade.

His affidavit submitted to Bharara's office says how besides reviewing dutifully the official database of the Department of State, he had also checked with the latter's protocol section which, he said, is 'the entity that accredits foreign diplomats and determines immunity levels. And I know that Khobragade enjoys limited diplomatic immunity with respect to only those acts undertaken in her official capacity.'

Thus, when Burns and Biswal came to know of the Khobragade case as everyone else did through news reports, the horse had already left the barn, or as one diplomatic observer told this correspondent, "The shit had hit the fan," with New Delhi taking a set of actions unprecedented in the annals of the US-India diplomatic and political experience.

Burns and Biswal and US Ambassador in New Delhi Nancy Powell are in full damage control mode. Kerry, travelling in Southeast Asia, has been made aware of the diplomatic and political spat.

The State Department officials have appealed to Delhi for understanding, and are in constant touch with their counterparts at the ministry of external affairs.

Since the matter is now sub judice, the State Department officials have to be extremely scrupulous about their statements as even a tinge of apology would mean they are questioning the very investigation carried on by the very agency they belong to and more importantly could have implications on the case when it is heard.

Thus, one source told Rediff.com, "There is absolutely no way, let alone a formal apology, even anything close to what can be construed as an apology will be made."

What was giving likely worry lines to Burns, Biswal and other senior officials who deal with India was that it could only get worse as the case proceeds, once Bharara's office begins its prosecution for the alleged charges against Dr Khobragade, which, if proven, could result in 10 or five years imprisonment.

One way out for Dr Khobragade, a source acknowledged, may have been that once the State Department alerted the Indian embassy that action was imminent against her -- as the State Department claims it did -- for the diplomat to have immediately packed her bags "and gotten the hell out of the US."

According to this source, "In such a scenario, the case would have fallen flat, because can you imagine what India would have said if the US called for her extradition? They would have told the US to go take a hike."

Now that avenue is closed because Dr Khobragade has had to surrender her passport. Her travel within the US is restricted and permitted only with the court's prior approval.

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC