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Attacks probe: The need for secrecy

December 28, 2008

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On May 1, 1960, the Soviet security forces shot down a U-2 spy plane of the US intelligence, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, as it was flying stealthily across the Soviet Union from Peshawar to Helsinki. The pilot parachuted into Soviet territory, was captured alive by the Soviet intelligence and interrogated. The KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, did not announce for seven days that he had been captured alive. They gave the impression that he was dead.

Presuming that he must have died, the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, the then US president, made a number of contradictory statements about its responsibility for violating Soviet air space. Powers, during his interrogation, made a total confession of his role and of the previous US spy flights over Soviet territory.

After the interrogation had been completed, the Soviet authorities announced that he had been captured alive and released details of his confession. The US government was put in an embarrassing position and admitted that it had been sending spy flights over the Soviet Union.

On May 7, 1960, Nikita Khrushchev, the then Soviet prime minister, told the world: 'I must tell you a secret. When I made my first report I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and well... and now just look how many silly things (the Americans) have said.' Not only was Powers still alive, but his plane was also more or less intact, including much of its spy equipment.

After the Mumbai [Images] blasts of March, 12, 1993, Narasimha Rao, the then prime minister, issued strict instructions that no one should disclose details of the investigation to the media. Two groups were set up at New Delhi [Images] and Mumbai. They met every day to review the progress of the investigation and decide how much should be disclosed to the media and what should not be disclosed.

Instructions were issued that except the commissioner of police in Mumbai, no other officer should talk to the media. Even he held a daily collective briefing of the media as a whole and avoided one-to-one briefings to any individual journalist.

In August 1994 -- 17 months after the blasts -- after the arrest of one of the key perpetrators, then home secretary K Padmanabhaiah held a press conference in New Delhi to collectively brief the media on the role of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence in the explosions.

Since the US started its Operation Enduring Freedom against Al Qaeda [Images] and the Taliban [Images] on October 7, 2001, it has captured a number of senior operatives of Al Qaeda in Pakistani territory -- Abu Zubaidah in Faislabad in Pakistani Punjab, Ramzi Binalshib in Karachi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in Rawalpindi, Abu-Faraj al-Libi in the North-West Frontier Province, to cite some of them. It also captured Hambali of the Jemmah Islamiyah, with the help of the Thai authorities at Ayuthya in Thailand. All of them were taken to either Diego Garcia or Bagram in Afghanistan or the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba for interrogation.

Till now, the details of their interrogation have not been released to the media by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only sanitised summaries were released to the media after they were indicted before a military tribunal. Marianne Pearl, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's widow, was reportedly briefed in confidence by the FBI about what Khalid Sheikh Mohammad had stated about his role in her husband's kidnapping and murder.

This is professionalism.

When I joined the Intelligence Bureau in 1967, I was taught in the training institute about the importance of keeping secret details of the statements made by suspects during their interrogation till the case reached the stage of prosecution. If the details came out in the media, that would benefit the terrorist organisation to which the suspect belonged. If the terrorist act was sponsored by a State, it would be able to cover up its tracks.

In recent years, we have been seeing the disturbing and highly unprofessional practice of intelligence and police officers giving to the media even before the investigation is complete, the details of the statements being made by suspects during the interrogation. In fact, they even give to their journalistic contacts a virtual running commentary of the interrogation. They do not seem to realise the damage which they are causing to the fight against terrorism by doing so.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and other foreign intelligence agencies do not even have to develop sources in our intelligence agencies and the police for getting details of interrogation reports and the line of investigation being followed by the police and the intelligence agencies. They just have to identify such privileged journalists, closely follow their reports and, if need be, cultivate them.

This often creates ridiculous situations as in the case of Mohammad Ajmal Amir Imam, the Pakistani member of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba [Images], who is presently under interrogation by the Mumbai police about his role in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

We have been rightly refusing to share the details of his interrogation with the Pakistani authorities on the ground that it will be premature to do so and that sharing the details at this stage with the Pakistani authorities might enable the Lashkar and the ISI to cover up their tracks.

And here are the officers of the Mumbai police and the intelligence community sharing all the details with some privileged journalists without realising the damage to the investigation and our fight against terrorism that could be caused by almost daily disclosures. This could also damage our credibility and cast doubts about our professionalism.

What was the need for the investigating officers to tell the journalists about the place where the surviving Lashkar terrorist was being detained and where he is going to be transferred next? Don't they realise that such information would be useful to the Lashkar and the ISI if they want to mount an operation to rescue or eliminate him? What was the need for the journalists to find out such sensitive details and disseminate them in the media? After the serial explosions in Ahmedabad [Images] in July, we saw some television channels giving details of the hospitals where the injured victims were being admitted. There was a vehicular bomb explosion in one of these hospitals.

As I have repeated many times before, it is important for the investigating officers to keep an open mind in the initial stages of the investigation and avoid coming out with categorical conclusions, which may be proved wrong by evidence collected subsequently. This is a rule of prudence to safeguard the credibility of the investigation process. Here we find everybody in Mumbai and Delhi coming out with categorical statements without the least doubts in their minds about the validity of their statements.

The sequel to the Mumbai attacks has been handled in an unprofessional manner not only by the Mumbai police and the intelligence agencies, but also by the policy-makers --political and professional -- of the Government of India. In our understandable anxiety to nail the State of Pakistan, we have been following a strategy, which lacks lucidity and coherence.

Our immediate objective should have been to prepare a well-written and well-collated dossier with evidence already collected, which do not require further independent corroboration and share it with other countries, particularly those whose nationals were killed by the terrorists.

Among such pieces of evidence one could mention the intercepts of the IB and the Research & Analysis Wing and the reports of US intelligence in September about the Lashkar's plans to mount a sea-borne act of terrorism in Mumbai targeting some hotels, including the Taj Mahal hotel [Images], the visuals from the closed circuit television cameras installed in the railway station and the hotels, the reports carried by The Observer of the UK, GeoTV and the Dawn newspaper in Pakistan identifying the surviving terrorist as a Pakistani national and usable extracts from the interrogation of the surviving terrorist which could be used in our diplomatic campaign without compromising the chances of a successful prosecution.

We should have also disseminated such a dossier to the Pakistani public and political leaders, who are well-disposed towards India.

At the height of the Kargil [Images] conflict, R&AW intercepted the telephone conversations of then Pakistan army [Images] chief, General Pervez Musharraf [Images], then on a visit to Beijing [Images], with Lieutenant General Mohammad Aziz, his then chief of the general staff. The intercepted conversations showed that it was the Pakistan Army which had intruded into Indian territory and not the jihadis as claimed by the army and that Musharraf had not kept Nawaz Sharif [Images], then the Pakistan prime minister, and many other senior officers in the army, the air force and the navy in the picture about his operation to capture the Kargil heights.

The Government of India not only released the transcripts of the conversations to the public and the international community in order to show Musharraf's perfidy, but also shared them with selected Pakistani political leaders, including Nawaz Sharif, in order to make them realise what kind of an officer they had as army chief.

The West and Israel have taken a serious note of the Mumbai attacks and are conducting an independent investigation not because Indians were killed, but because their own nationals were killed -- with the Jewish victims being subjected to inhuman brutality by the terrorists. They suspect that the targeting of nationals from the US, the UK, France [Images], Germany [Images], Italy [Images] and Canada [Images], which are participating in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, indicates that it was possibly an Al Qaeda inspired operation, if not a joint operation by the Lashkar and Al Qaeda.

If these suspicions prove to be correct, this will show that the ISI has been using the Lashkar as well as Al Qaeda against India. It would also show that while pretending to cooperate with the US against Al Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, FATA, the ISI has been using Al Qaeda elements against India. This is an aspect which has to be kept in view during the investigation instead of viewing the attack as a totally Lashkar-mounted operation with the help of the ISI.

By now, we should have put on a specially created Web site the personal particulars of suspects involved in the Mumbai attacks and announced a cash reward of Rs 50 million each, if not more, to anyone giving information which could lead to their arrest or elimination. A safe line of communication should have been indicated on the Web site, which could be used by the potential informers to get in touch with the right person in the investigation agencies.

The investigation into the Ahmedabad blasts of July and the Mumbai attacks have brought out that the interrogation reports of some suspects arrested in February 2008, contained possible clues to future terrorist strikes. These interrogation reports were not systematically followed up. It is likely that dozens of other interrogation reports lie unread, unanalysed and unacted upon in the archives of the police in different states. The government should ask a group of serving officers to go through all interrogation reports of the last three years in order to see whether they too contain similar clues about the future.

B Raman

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