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Remember Rabinder Singh?

By B Raman
Last updated on: May 23, 2005 18:52 IST
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Remember Aldrich Ames?

He used to be a middle-level officer at the Central Intelligence Agency, working in the CIA's counter-intelligence division responsible for keeping a watch on Soviet/Russian efforts to spy in and against the US.

The American public were shocked when they were told one morning in 1993 that he had turned out to be a star mole in the CIA for the Soviet/Russian intelligence agencies for many years. He had exposed the identities of many CIA moles in Moscow and sent them to their deaths.

He had willingly let himself be used by Moscow for planting on the Pentagon fabricated documents about new weapons allegedly being developed by the Soviet/Russian military. The Pentagon spent billions of dollars of American tax-payers' money to develop a counter to non-existent Soviet/Russian weapons.

Why is the US spying on India?

The shocked American leadership ordered a detailed enquiry.

Enquiries were held by the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as by the United States Congress. The report of the agencies' enquiry is not available. The Congressional enquiry report was released to the public.

What did the report reveal?

  • That Ames was an alcoholic.
  • That he and his wife had expensive living habits and lived much beyond their means.
  • That they were fond of expensive, fast cars. She used to dress in the best and costliest designer clothes.
  • That he used to make unauthorised visits to the Soviet/Russian embassy in Washington.
  • That he used to take out of his office on his laptop details of sensitive CIA moles in Moscow
  • That at least over a dozen middle and senior level officers of the CIA knew all this for years, but did not alert their chief.
  • That some State Department officials knew of his weakness for the bottle, but did not sound a wake-up call.
  • That two CIA chiefs, who discovered this after the CIA's moles in Moscow disappeared from the scene, did not alert the FBI and failed to pursue the matter vigorously.

James Woolsey, director of the CIA at the time the Congressional enquiry was held, was forced to resign because of strong Congressional criticism of the ineffective way he handled the enquiry and acted against the officers, who failed to alert the organisation when they they found Ames had many character faults.

Remember a man called Rabinder Singh?

He came to the Research and Analysis Wing from the Indian Army in the late 1980s and progressed up the ranks. From deputy secretary to director. And then on to joint secretary. He was considered an above-average field operative willing to take risks, but a mediocre desk analyst in headquarters.

Even a mediocre desk officer at R&AW headquarters has his uses for a foreign intelligence agency. His very mediocrity makes him pliable and willing to carry out orders.

One fine morning, the RAW's counter-intelligence and security division realised that Rabinder Singh was not what he seemed to be. He was a prized acquisition for the CIA. So prized that when he came under suspicion, the CIA went to extraordinary lengths to help him escape to the US from Kathmandu a year ago. With an American passport, one is told.

Did the CIA help Rabinder Singh flee?

If true, this was really extraordinary.

Deniability is the sacred principle of all intelligence operations. No intelligence agency worth its salt would issue a document to its agent, which would destroy the deniability of his or her contact with it.

Issuing an American passport to him to enable him to escape to the US was tantamount to admitting in the open town hall that he was their man.

The fact that they did it without worrying about its likely impact on Indo-US relations is indicative of three things:

  • His extraordinary importance for the CIA.
  • The CIA's over-anxiety to prevent his detention and interrogation by Indian counter-intelligence, lest he reveal more on his role as the CIA's mole than the Indian counter-intelligence had been able to gather.
  • Despite all the talk of close Indo-US relations and close co-operation between the agencies of the two countries in counter-terrorism, the US agencies couldn't care less about Indian sensitivities over their continuing efforts to penetrate the Indian official set-up and Indian non-governmental organisations.

For the US, India's untrustworthy

Penetration by a foreign intelligence agency is an occupational hazard for all agencies. There is no agency in the world which could claim that it had never been penetrated.

R&AW had been penetrated once in the 1980s at the joint secretary's level.The Intelligence Bureau in the 1990s even at a higher level. If he had not been detected in time, the IB might have been headed in the 1990s by a CIA mole.

What distinguishes the Rabinder Singh case from those of the past is that in the past the moles were detected and acted against -- either sacked or arrested and sent to jail and prevented from fleeing the country.

Rabinder Singh was detected, but before he could be detained and a damage assessment made by interrogating him, he gave the slip, with the complicity and the extraordinary help of the CIA.

What came out of the subsequent enquiry -- in-house as well as by National Security Adviser M K Narayanan?

One has no authoritative account except media speculation and leaks.

Is it true that he had many of the character faults that Ames had?

A weakness for the bottle?

An expensive life style?

Entertaining his colleagues and friends in a style, which should have been beyond the means of a government servant at any level of seniority?

The dangers of intelligence cooperation

Why did the CIA go to such extraordinary lengths to help him escape?

What follow-up action has been taken against him?

Why do we fight shy of telling the public about the betrayal of our good faith by the US?

After having served in the government for over three decades, one is certain a thorough enquiry must have been made and the right conclusions and lessons drawn.

Doesn't the public have a right to know?

Why are the BJP and Congress fighting shy of talking about the issue in their public debate?

Is it due to a fear that the US might react adversely?

Why are the Communists, who have no reason to heed American sensitivities, keeping quiet over it?

In the meanwhile, Ames is in jail serving a 20-year sentence and Rabinder Singh is reportedly in the US enjoying the fruits of his alleged act of treachery.

As long as he is alive, the nation should not be allowed to forget his alleged act of treachery.

External links:

India's CIA spy scandal

An Assessment of the Aldrich H Ames Espionage Case

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B Raman