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Release of Kargil tape: Masterpiece or blunder?

June 27, 2007 16:37 IST

Outlook, the weekly magazine, has in its latest issue carried some extracts from a book written by Major-General V K Singh from the army's Corps of Signals, who had reportedly served as the head of the Telecommunications Wing of the Research & Analysis Wing from 2000 to 2004.

The book seems to have levelled a lot of criticism about the functioning of the R&AW. Everybody -- whether an insider or an
Outsider -- has a right to criticise the organisation in public interest, provided the criticism is well-founded, is without malice and has not been motivated by any personal grouse of the critic due to any unpleasant experiences with the organisation.

Since I do not know much of Maj Gen Singh, who joined the organisation six years after I retired, it would not be fair on my part to attribute motives to him. However, the general tenor of some of his observations relating to l'affaire Major Rabinder Singh, the CIA's mole in the organisation who got away in 2004 with the collusion of the CIA after throwing dust into the eyes of the organisation's leadership, give one the impression that they are based not on personal knowledge but on corridor gossip in the organisation.

I do not blame him for this human frailty to believe in gossip. But what I do blame him for and what amazes me is the apparent lack of professional knowledge displayed by his observations relating to the publicity given by the NDA government headed by A B Vajpayee to the so-called Kargil tape.

At the height of the Kargil conflict, Gen Pervez Musharraf, then the Chief of the Army Staff under Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had gone on a visit to Beijing. Lt Gen Mohammad Aziz Khan, his trusted Chief of the General Staff, rang him up at his hotel in Beijing and reported to him about a meeting chaired by Nawaz Sharif at which the chiefs of the Pakistani Air Force and Navy complained to Nawaz that Musharraf had kept them in the dark about the invasion of Kargil heights. This was intercepted by the R&AW.

This telephone conversation was not the greatest intelligence coup ever scored by R&AW as projected by the Major-Gen. The greatest intelligence coup ever scored by the R&AW since its inception in 1968 was to get advance warning of the Pakistani pre-emptive air strikes of December 3, 1971, which marked the beginning of the 1971 war. The R&AW got the advance warning from a human source in the office of Gen Yahya Khan, the then military dictator.

The Kargil tape was the greatest PSYWAR coup ever scored by the R&AW in its history. It corroborated our Army's contention that the intruders were regular soldiers of the Pakistan Army and not jihadi terrorists as initially maintained by Musharraf, that he did not trust his own Air Force and Navy Chiefs and Lt Gen Ziauddin, the then chief of ISI, and that there were differences in the Army itself over the wisdom of Musharraf's adventure.

The Government of India, after careful consideration, decided to release the tape to the public, to make Nawaz Shairf aware of it and to share it with other countries. At a press conference, the NDA government distributed transcripts of the tape. A copy of the tape was played to Nawaz through a back channel mechanism (it was not given to Nawaz). Copies of the full text of the telephone conversation were also made available to the foreign embassies in New Delhi.

The decision of the government had the following beneficial effects. Firstly, the US and China openly recognised that the Pakistan Army had deliberately violated the Line of Control in Kashmir and insisted that it should withdraw from Indian territory, which it ultimately did. Secondly, it damaged the credibility of the Pakistan Army and Musharraf in the eyes of the Pakistani public. Till today, there are not many takers in Pakistan for Musharraf's version of the conflict.

Deliberate release or leaking out of taped telephone conversations for PSYWAR purposes is nothing new. The history of intelligence craft is replete with such instances. In the first week of September 1983, a South Korean Airline aircraft, carrying 269 passengers, was shot down by a Soviet missile post, off the Sakhalin island, resulting in the death of all the passengers. There was universal condemnation of the Soviet action, and Moscow took the stand that its missile post was not aware that it was a civilian aircraft.

However, the US National Security Agency, which is responsible for technical intelligence, had intercepted telephone conversations of the missile post which proved that Moscow's contention was wrong. Ronald Reagan, the then US President, dramatically used the recording for PSYWAR purposes against Moscow. He had initially leaked theĀ  contents of the tape to the New York Times. Subsequently, portions of the tape were played to the members of the UN Security Council by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the then US Permanent Representative to the UN.

There are two kinds of telephone intercepts -- landline and mobile conversations inside a country and overseas calls through satellites. Interception of internal calls require the presence of a human agent in the telecommunications set-up of the targetted country to give technical access to the landline or mobile station. Any release of an intercepted internal call could endanger the human agent. Intelligence agencies therefore generally never do it. Interception of overseas calls do not require a human agent. The danger of exposure is less.

All interceptions of domestic or overseas calls exploit the lack of security consciousness of the persons talking on the telephone. The R&AW was able to intercept this telephone conversation because neither Musharraf, who is very fond of talking, nor Lt Gen Aziz were security-conscious enough. It is quite likely that they realised this when the Government of India released the tape and were more careful while talking on telephone thereafter. This could have dried up at least temporarily the flow of intelligence from such instances of lax communications security. This is a danger, which would have been factored into the decision to release the tape.

At the time the decision was taken, I had myself expressed misgivings about the wisdom of the government's action. But one cannot deny that the government's decision did result in an increase in international pressure on the Pakistan Army to withdraw from Indian territory. Thus, the conflict ended quickly without further loss of lives.

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi)

B Raman