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Did the CIA help Rabinder Singh flee?

By C K Kutty
February 03, 2005 19:56 IST
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Part I: A RAW hand

Part II: The outsider

While one can understand the unhappiness in R&AW over an insider not being made the chief, frequent appointments of outsiders as intelligence chiefs are nothing unusual in other countries.

The CIA has had more outsiders than insiders as its chief. Since January 1993, it has not had a single insider as its chief. Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush have both preferred outsiders for this job.

Mossad, the Israeli external intelligence agency, has had outsiders as its chief.

RAW and Mossad: The Secret Link 

When Francois Mitterrand became the president of France in 1981, he appointed Pierre Marion, the CEO of Air France, as the chief of the French external intelligence agency.

The insiders in those organisations take the induction of outsiders in their stride and concede that it is the chief executive's prerogative to appoint anyone enjoying his or her confidence as the intelligence chief.

In India, the IB cadre rules lay down that its chief has to be an officer of the IPS cadre, whether from the IB or outside. While its chiefs have generally been insiders, there have been instances when IPS officers had been brought from outside and made the Director, Intelligence Bureau.

The Domestic Challenge

The last example was that of Arun Bhagat, who was inducted from the Delhi police and made the DIB after the IB got into a controversy over its reports on the alleged presence of a spy ring in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He had worked for some years in R&AW in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but never in the IB.

When R&AW was formed in 1968, Indira Gandhi made the post of its chief an ex-cadre post -- meaning that the prime minister of the day can appoint anyone as its chief, an insider or an outsider, a governmental or a non-governmental personality.

Hence, the prime minister is totally within his rights in bringing an outsider to head the organisation.

All over the world, political leaders generally appoint outsiders as intelligence chiefs under two circumstances -- when the performance of an agency has been consistently bad and they feel only an outsider will be able to shake it up; or, after an intelligence agency has gone through a bad patch due to some scandal or the other to make sure that the scandal has been thoroughly enquired into and necessary corrective action taken.

R&AW has been going through a bad patch since June 2004 when the scandal regarding Major Rabinder Singh (retired), a joint secretary in the organisation, defected.

ISRO scientist spy case 

It was alleged that R&AW's Counter-Intelligence and Security -- CIS -- division discovered that Singh (in main image) was working for the CIA, which helped him to flee to the US after giving a slip to the CIS when it was trying to build up a case against him before arresting him.

Pak claims about RAW 

This embarrassing fiasco and national security failure are attributed to weak surveillance and investigation by the CIS, the lack of coordination between Amar Bhushan, the No 3 in the organisation, who was in charge of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), the administration and the CIS, and Director C D Sahay; and R&AW's senior leadership's alleged failure to bring the IB, which is the nodal agency in counter-intelligence matters, into the picture and associate it in the investigation and surveillance.

It was also alleged that Amar Bhushan did not keep Sahay totally in the picture and that Sahay, on coming to know of it rather late, did not immediately alert the IB and seek its cooperation.

For the US, India's untrustworthy 

Penetration of an intelligence agency by foreign agencies is an occupational hazard and one cannot totally avoid it. There is no intelligence agency in the world which can claim that it has not been penetrated.

R&AW was penetrated by the CIA in the 1980s when the head of its office in Chennai was allegedly found to have been passing on to the CIA xerox copies of sensitive documents regarding its operations in Sri Lanka in return for alleged sexual and financial favours.

It was the IB office in Chennai which detected it and immediately alerted R&AW. The two set up a joint surveillance and investigation team, which collected evidence, interrogated him and had him dismissed and jailed.

The IB was penetrated by the CIA at a very senior level at its headquarters in the 1990s. A senior IPS officer, who was in the line of succession as the DIB, was found to be having a close personal and clandestine relationship with a woman CIA officer who had been posted by the CIA in the US embassy in New Delhi to maintain liaison with R&AW for counter-terrorism and other purposes.

Immigration scams taint RAW   

The IB and R&AW immediately set up a joint team to deal with the case and the officer had to quit the IB.

Whenever instances of such penetration are detected, it is important to establish quickly what damage has been caused through interrogation of the mole and take steps to correct the damage.

This was possible in the earlier two cases, but would not have veen possible in Rabindra Singh's case because he managed to give the slip to R&AW's surveillance team and escape to the US, reportedly with an American passport issued by the US embassy, either in New Delhi or Kathmandu, with the specific purpose of helping him to get away before he could be arrested.

Why is the US spying on India?  

Deniability of contacts is a rule of caution followed by all intelligence agencies. They do not like to leave any written proof of contact with their sources and moles.

If it is correct that the US ebassy issued an American passport to him, it shows that it decided to violate the rule because it did not want him to fall into the hands of R&AW interrogators at any cost. It was apparently worried that he might tell them something that could be very damaging to the CIA.

There are two possibilities in such cases. First, he must have given some very sensitive intelligence to the CIA. There is no reason to believe so because, it is reported, he was not handling such intelligence.

Second, he must have helped the CIA in recruiting one or more moles well-placed in R&AW or other departments who have access to sensitive and valuable intelligence and the CIA was worried that if he was interrogated he might reveal their identity during the interrogation.

The second possibility should be very worrisome to our counter-intelligence authorities.

In this connection, one recalls the case of the famous KGB spy ring in the MI-6, the British external intelligence agency, headed by Kim Philby.

 How intelligence agencies keep India's citizens under surveillance 

When he came under suspicion by the MI-5, the British security service, the KGB helped him to escape to the USSR in a Soviet submarine because they were afraid that if he fell into the hands of the MI-5 interrogators he might expose the entire ring.

Was the CIA trying to protect such a ring in New Delhi by helping or pressurising Rabinder Singh to run away?

It was reported last year that the Prime Minister's Office had asked M K Narayanan to enquire into this fiasco and security lapse and that he has submitted his report. Ever since last July, there was speculation in the corridors of New Delhi that Sahay might be replaced by Hormis Tharakan or Govind, the then director general of police in Tamil Nadu. This did not happen and Sahay was allowed to continue.

The talk in informed circles was that the late J N Dixit was against such action. He was reportedly of the view that while the government should fix responsibility for the lapse and punish the individual officer responsible, it should avoid any action, which might be interpreted as humiliation of the organisation.

Interview: Girish Chandra Saxena   

He was reportedly strongly in favour of an insider not involved in the fiasco being made the chief. Till Dixit's death, the expectation was that an insider would be appointed as the chief.

This impression was strengthened when there was a delay in the announcement of Sahay's successor.

Generally, when the PMO wants to induct an outsider as the chief, it takes the decision weeks, if not months, in advance so that the new officer could understudy his predecessor. This is not necessary when an insider has to take over. This expectation has been belied.

R&AW is an extremely professional organisation, which has performed very well from its inception.

Its brilliant role in the liberation of Bangladesh, in the end of insurgency in Nagaland and Mizoram, in the merger of Sikkim with India, in the end of terrorism in Punjab, in the campaign against jihadi terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir, in the investigation of the Mumbai blasts of March 12, 1993, etc had received recognition from the political leadership and policy-makers.

The Mumbai blasts, 2004

It has also had its share of fiascos and security lapses and passed through bad patches.

It went through a particularly bad patch in 1977 when Morarji Desai and his foreign minister, A B Vajpayee, came to power with a pledge to drastically downsize R&AW which they accused of many wrong-doings during the Emergency.

After taking over, they realised that their allegations and suspicions were wrong and dropped their plans to downsize. It has been passing through a similar bad patch in the wake of the Rabinder Singh case.

India speeds up revamp of intelligence network 

But unfortunately in this case its performance has been far from satisfactory. There are many doubts and questions in the minds of the political leadership and policy-makers.

One has to admit that this has been a very embarrassing incident. But instead of brooding over it, its officers should extend their full cooperation to Tharakan and help him in identifying and correcting the deficiencies in the organisation.

The most serious deficiency in the organisation is the poor man management and bad inter-personal relations among senior officers and the consequent ego clashes.

One cannot but form an impression that it is these bad inter-personal relations and ego clashes which enabled Rabinder Singh to escape and gave opportunity to the CIA to blacken R&AW's face.

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C K Kutty