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The perils of cooperating with the US

By B Raman
July 03, 2006 14:13 IST
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'In recent years, the increase in acts of terrorism and the understandable emphasis on the need for strengthening international intelligence co-operation have led to a dilution of the effectiveness of the counter-penetration measures laid down in the past.

'As a result, innumerable contact points are believed to have emerged, with no centralised system of control, supervision and record-keeping and with even many who are not professional intelligence officers and who have not had the benefit of counter-intelligence and counter-penetration training jumping into the game of intelligence co-operation.

'Nothing would gladden the hearts of the trained penetration experts of foreign intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, more than the perceived loosening of control. Unless this dangerous trend is checked and reversed, we might find one day that the sensitive establishments of this country have been badly penetrated under the guise of intelligence cooperation.'

--Extract from my July 18, 2002 article: The dangers of intelligence cooperation.

'Future cooperation is likely to have its share of problems, as evidened last year by the discovery by Indian counter-intelligence officials that the CIA had penetrated RAW by allegedly recruiting one of its middle-level officers, Rabinder Singh, as an agent. Prior to his arrest, the CIA allegedly helped him escape from India via Kathmandu and flee to the United States by issuing him an American passport under a different name.

'This was a gross violation of the unwritten code of conduct governing liaison relations between co-operating intelligence agencies, which lays down that the officers posted in the host capital for liaison purposes would not misuse their presence in the host capital for penetrating the intelligence agencies, which are cooperating with their US counterparts. Such problems are an occupational hazard when dealing with a country such as the United States which does not hesitate to break the rules of the game when it is considered necessary in US national interests.'

From my talk at a conference on Indo-US Strategic Cooperation organised by Indiana University, Bloomington, USA, in April 2005.

One more instance of the US blatantly breaking the rules of the game in India has been reported by the Indian media in recent days.

This relates to the alleged recruitment of a systems analyst of India's National Security Council Secretariat -- NSCS -- by a woman, suspected to be from the Central Intelligence Agency. He has reportedly been arrested and is under interrogation.

It has been reported that he was siphoning off sensitive intelligence relating to vital aspects of India's national security from the computer network of the NSCS through a pen drive and passing it on to his woman handling officer. It has also been reported that copies of many NSCS documents were found in his house.

According to the media, he came into contact with this woman during a meeting of the US-India Cyber Security Forum and was probably recruited then. The Forum was established by the Vajpayee government in 2002 and has been meeting alternately in Washington, DC and New Delhi.

Whereas the Indo-US Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism consists exclusively of government experts in various aspects of counter-terrorism with no involvement of non-governmental experts, the Cyber Security Forum brings together both government and industry representatives from each country to identify areas for collaboration such as combating cyber-crime, cyber security research and development, information assurance and defence cooperation, standards and software assurance and cyber incident management and response.

According to a statement issued after its second meeting in Washington, DC in November 2004, the head of the Indian delegation, National Security Council Secretariat Joint Secretary Arvind Gupta, stated that 'securing cyber space will remain one of the biggest challenges facing the international community for years to come and this Cyber Security Forum has emerged as an important bilateral mechanism to address such issues.'

The US has apparently misused a forum which was set up ostensibly to help India strengthen its cyber space, to weaken it, penetrate it by recruiting a mole at a forum meeting and siphon off information from the network of our NSCS.

In countries having the NSC system such as the US, Russia, Israel etc, the NSC Secretariat is considered the sanctum sanctorum of the national security management architecture.

It is subjected to the highest level of internal security because it is there that the most sensitive of sensitive reports prepared for the head of Government are stored and it is there that details of decisions by the head of government regarding national security, war and peace are kept and the follow-up action on them is monitored.

If a foreign intelligence can penetrate the NSCS of any country, it will have access to a vast amount of sensitive intelligence relating to different agencies of the intelligence community and different sensitive departments of the Government.

It is because of this very high level of internal security in the NSC Secretariats of other countries that to my knowledge there have been very few instances of the penetration of the NSC Secretariat of any country by a foreign agency through a mole.

In the history of intelligence and counter-intelligence, there have been innumerable instances of the penetration of intelligence agencies, the armed forces headquarters, sensitive departments of governments and even the personal offices of the heads of government, but not many instances of penetration of the NSC Secretariats.

The suspected penetration of our NSC Secretariat by the CIA through a mole, if established to be correct, should, therefore, be a matter of serious concern to our national security managers.

The reported penetration has two aspects -- positive and negative. The positive aspect is that the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which is responsible for counter-intelligence, managed to detect it within a few months of the penetration taking place.

It is just not possible to detect a penetration the moment it takes place. The IB and its director, who, it is said, is an expert in counter-intelligence, need to be complimented for the quick detection. It speaks highly of their alertness and professionalism.

The negative aspect is the apparent weak internal security in the NSCS nearly eight years after it was set up by the Vajpayee government in pursuance of a recommendation made by a Task Force on National Security Management, set up in 1998 under the chairmanship of K C Pant.

Counter-intelligence has two components -- prevention of penetration and detection and investigation. While the IB is responsible for detection and investigation, each department is responsible for its internal security. Of course, the IB helps the various departments in their internal security tasks, but the ultimate responsibility for prevention is theirs.

Internal security has many aspects -- security of the premises, security vetting of the staff at the time of their recruitment and from time to time subsequently (in-service vetting), document security, network security and monitoring of the external contacts of the staff, especially with foreigners. If all these aspects are not handled with equal effectiveness, penetration is likely.

The IB's investigation will focus on the weaknesses in the internal security of the NSCS, which were exploited by the alleged CIA officer for penetration, the damage done by the systems analyst and the identification of anyone else, who might have formed part of a spy network.

When a foreign agency succeeds in recruiting a systems analyst as a human mole, the danger is not only that he or she would have been used for siphoning off information from the computer network, but also that the foreign agency might have succeeded in planting, through him or her, a microchip mole in the network, which would reduce the future dependence on the human mole.

We have the capability for detecting human moles, but do we have the capability for detecting microchip moles?

If the systems analyst had succeeded in planting a microchip mole in the NSCS network, it would keep automatically transferring all files from the NSCS network to the CIA headquarters, without the knowledge of the NSCS Secretariat.

Indo-US strategic co-operation in various fields -- intelligence, military-to-military, nuclear, space, economic -- is the flavour of the decade. It acquired its present flavour under the previous government and it has become stronger and stronger under the present government.

In our fascination for co-operation with the US, we should not let our guard down and forget the fact that the US has never had any qualms about the penetration of the governments and intelligence, national security, military, nuclear and space establishments of even the closest of its close allies.

Indira Gandhi understood our vulnerabilities while dealing with the US.

She had set up firewalls to protect ourselves from the possible negative consequences of close relations with the US. These firewalls continued to be in place after her. The US and the UK tried again and again when P V Narasimha Rao was the prime minister to have these firewalls removed, but he spurned their pressure.

Their erosion started under the previous government and seems to have continued under the present government.

The case of the systems analyst is a wake-up call to examine the risks of close strategic cooperation with the US and protect ourselves against such risks.

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B Raman