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The Rediff Special/Amar V Batra

Why is the US spying on India?

June 10, 2004

The media reported on June 5, the dismissal by the President of retired Major Rabinder Singh, a joint secretary at the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, under Article 311(2) (c) of the Constitution. This Article enables the President to dismiss any officer of an all-India service without holding a formal departmental enquiry against him if such an enquiry is considered not to be in the national interest. There is no provision for a judicial review of the decision.

According to media reports, Rabinder Singh, who held charge of the South-East Asia portfolio, has been absconding from his duties for nearly three weeks and is suspected to have fled abroad, most probably to the US, after he came under suspicion of working for US intelligence. It is said the suspicion arose following the recovery of photocopies of some classified documents from his briefcase during a check by RAW security staff as he was leaving office.

His dismissal under a special provision of the Constitution would seem to have been taken as he was no longer available for a formal enquiry into his alleged act of espionage for a foreign power. The dismissal order is meant more to deter similar acts of espionage by other officers of the intelligence agencies than to repair the damage caused by him to the organisation and the nation.

Whatever damage he might have caused cannot be set right. One can only prevent a recurrence of such incidents if one draws the right lessons from the case and tightens the loopholes in the internal security system at RAW, which enabled Rabinder Singh to betray the secrets of the organisation to a foreign agency.

Rabinder Singh is a clean-shaven Sikh, who came on deputation to RAW from the army in the 1980s. He held the rank of major at that time. He did not go back to the army on completion of his deputation. He gave up his lien in the army and chose to be permanently absorbed in RAW as a member of its Research and Analysis Service.

Throughout his career, he was considered by many of his peers as an average officer. He was poor as an intelligence analyst, but somewhat good as a field operative.

During his career, he worked as head of the RAW office in Amritsar and subsequently as a field operative in West Asia and West Europe. In Amritsar, his principal task was the collection of trans-border HUMINT (human intelligence) about the Pakistani military and about the training of Sikh terrorists by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence in Pakistani territory. In West Asia, his task was monitoring the activities of terrorist groups there. In West Europe he focused on the activities of Sikh terrorist elements operating there.

In counter-intelligence, which is the technique of preventing infiltration by moles of foreign intelligence agencies, it is often difiicult to get provable evidence. One has, therefore, to act on suspicion. Article 311 (2) of the Constitution is helpful in such cases. Foreign intelligence agencies have a provision in their service rules called the 'golden handshake.' Under this, they can ease out of the organisation incapable or unreliable or suspicious officers by persuading them to quit in return for handsome monetary compensation. They use this provision quite often to weed out undesirable elements without getting involved in protracted and controversial litigation.

When RAW was formed in September 1968, R N Kao, its founder, persuaded then prime minister Indira Gandhi to agree to the inclusion of a 'golden handshake' provision in its service rules. It is not clear as to why RAW did not act against Rabinder Singh under the 'golden handshake' provision or Article 311 (2) earlier than it did since his track record was reportedly not impressive.

It is said there was a question mark over his reliability since the early 1990s when an operation he began for the collection of intelligence about US government activities in South Asia through a sister of his, who was employed in a sensitive US agency with links to the CIA, was found to have been fishy.

Initially, some good documents came out of this operation, but subsequently, there were grounds for suspicion that the CIA might be using his sister to plant disinformation on the Government of India through him. One such piece of disinformation, which they allegedly tried to feed through this channel in the late 1980s, was that the US embassy in New Delhi had reported to the State Department that the then Chief of the Army Staff was planning a coup against Rajiv Gandhi.

This is the third detected instance of the penetration of the Indian intelligence by the CIA.

In the first instance detected in 1986-1987, a senior RAW officer of the rank of director (one rank below joint secretary) belonging to the IPS, posted in Chennai for handling sensitive Sri Lanka operations, was allegedly found to have been working for the CIA.

During a random surveillance of a suspected CIA officer posted in the US consulate in Chennai, the RAW officer was allegedly discovered to have clandestine contact with the CIA officer and going for morning jogs with him.

After collecting video-recordings of a series of such clandestine meetings, a joint counter-intelligence team of the Intelligence Bureau and RAW confronted him with the evidence. He reportedly broke down and made a clean breast of it. He was dismissed under Article 311 (2) of the Constitution and jailed in Tihar for a year to serve as a deterrent example to others.

The second instance detected in 1995-1996 related to a senior officer of the Intelligence Bureau belonging to the IPS, who held a rank equivalent to that of an additional secretary, one level below secretary. He might have risen to be the head of the organisation within a few months if his contacts with the CIA had not been detected. He had served for some years in the ministry of external affairs. He was responsible for internal security and counter-intelligence in the MEA and used to interact with a large number of foreign intelligence officers posted in their diplomatic missions in New Delhi. He also developed social relationship with them.

After reverting to the IB at the end of his MEA tenure, he reportedly became the head of its counter-intelligence division and was responsible for maintaining a surveillance of all foreign intelligence officers based in New Delhi in order to prevent any attempts by them to penetrate the IB and other government departments.

It was alleged that unauthorisedly and without the knowledge of the Director, Intelligence Bureau, he continued to maintain his personal and social relationships with the foreign intelligence officers, which he had built up in the MEA.

Accidentally, the IB's counter-intelligence division reportedly found that a woman CIA officer posted in the US embassy was in contact with government servants and others on a mobile telephone, allegedly registered in the name of their boss, the suspect IB officer. Without alerting him, they brought this to the notice of the director, IB.

A joint counter-intelligence team of the IB and RAW then kept him under surveillance, collected video-recordings of his clandestine meetings with the CIA officer and then confronted him with the evidence.He reportedly broke down and admitted his contacts with her.

It was stated that during the investigation it was found that apart from facilitating her operational work by hiring a mobile in his name and giving it to her, he had not betrayed any sensitive secrets. He was reportedly sent on premature retirement and no further action was taken.

There were two unsuccessful attempts by the CIA to penetrate Indian intelligence.

In the first instance which took place in the 1980s, a director-level non-IPS RAW officer posted in a West European country, came under pressure from the CIA to work for it. He immediately alerted RAW about it. He was withdrawn and the CIA's plans were thwarted.

In the second instance, in the early 1990s, a CIA officer posted at the US embassy in New Delhi tried to recruit an IB officer, who immediately reported it to his superiors. They laid a trap for the CIA officer, collected evidence of his misdeeds and ordered him to leave the country.

Since 1947, India has had a long history of intelligence co-operation relationship with the intelligence agencies of the US and other Western countries as well as with those of the erstwhile USSR, Russia and other East European countries. Underlying all such relationships is an unwritten gentlemen's agreement that the agencies would not take advantage of this relationship to penetrate each other.

Most intelligence agencies of the world try to observe this, but not the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They are aggressive and do not care for any dos and don'ts in intelligence cooperation relationships. They do not hesitate to clandestinely penetrate their sister agencies with which they have an official relationship if they get an opportunity to do so.

The IB has the over-all responsibility for counter-intelligence. It is responsible for the pevention of penetration of its own set-up as well as of other government departments.

RAW has a counter intelligence and security division, whose responsibility is limited to maintaining internal security and preventing the penetration of the organisation. It performs the security role by keeping a tab on the use of photo-copying machines, scanners, computers with external connections etc, by random door checking of the contents of the briefcases of staff and other methods. It performs the counter intelligence task by monitoring the lifestyles and work habits of its staff and their contacts with outsiders. It has no capability for external surveillance for which it has to depend on the IB's counter intelligence division.

It is possible, but not certain that it was the IB's counter intelligence division which first rang the alarm bells about Rabinder Singh after noticing a clandestine meeting of his with a suspect CIA officer. If this was not so and if it was RAW, which detected his contacts, it is not known whether it immediately alerted the IB and sought its cooperation in the further investigation as all government departments are expected to do.

In all intelligence agencies of the world, the head of the counter intelligence division is a hated officer in the organisation because he is perceived as spying on his colleagues and friends. James Angleton, head of the CIA's counter intelligence division during the initial Cold War years, became a detested man because of his aggressive investigative methods and has been spending his sunset years with very few friends from amongst retired intelligence officers. Competent intelligence officers avoid heading the counter intelligence division since they find spying on their colleagues and friends distasteful.

In 1980, M D Dittia, a police officer of the Delhi cadre, who headed the counter intelligence division at RAW, was gheraoed by lower and middle-level staff who accused him of harassing and humiliating them under the pretext of counter intelligence. They went on strike demanding, inter alia, the abolition of the counter intelligence division. The late N F Suntook, then the chief of RAW, rejected their demands, had the ring-leaders of the strike dismissed under Article 311 (2), got those who instigated the gherao arrested and prosecuted and persuaded Indira Gandhi to have legislation enacted banning strikes in RAW.

No counter intelligence division can be effective without the cooperation of the colleagues and friends of a suspect mole, who have to alert the division if they notice anything suspicious. Many officers find this distasteful and avoid communicating their suspicions to the counter intelligence division due to an impression that 'gentlemen do not rat on their colleagues and friends.'

During the first Clinton administration, Aldrich Ames, a well-placed mole of Soviet and Russian intelligence, was detected by the CIA. He was responsible for the deaths of many CIA moles in Moscow, whose identities he had revealed to the Soviet and Russian intelligence services. During the investigation, it was discovered that he was an alcoholic, that he and his wife were given to expensive living, that he was always in heavy debt and that he was in the habit of visiting the Russian embassy in Washington DC, without the knowledge of his superiors.

A Congressional enquiry found that over a dozen colleagues of his were aware of all these, but refrained from alerting the CIA director or the head of its counter intelligence division about it. They thought that would amount to carrying tales about a colleague and friend, which, in their view, was just not done.

Such an attitude has to change if counter intelligence has to be effective and penetration by foreign agencies has to be prevented.

While collecting intelligence about foreign adversaries and terrorists is a highly exciting and glamorous job, which immediately attracts the attention and commendation of organisational and political superiors, collecting intelligence about one's own colleagues and friends can be a terribly boring and to many, distasteful and thankless job, which does not bring the officer to the good notice of his or her superiors. Foreign intelligence agencies take advantage of this mindset in their efforts at successful penetration.

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