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How the mole-watchers were shackled

Tuesday 15 June 2004, by SWAMI*Praveen

NEW DELHI, JUNE 14. In 1987, the man now believed to have been the Central Intelligence Agency’s top mole in the Research and Analysis Wing walked into his boss’ office with a proposal. Rabinder Singh, then a junior officer, wanted to make a deal.

A year earlier, RAW had set up a new organisation called Counter-Intelligence Team `J’, a super-secret covert group intended to target Khalistan terrorist groups, much like the CIT `X’, which trains agents for covert operations in Pakistan. Mr. Singh had a volunteer who, in return for his cooperation, was demanding the release of two prisoners held on murder and trans-border trafficking charges. A little investigation led Mr. Singh’s boss to two conclusions: the officer’s deal involved not a little personal greed, and his recruit was just as likely to betray CIT `J’ as work for it.

The end result? Nothing. Repeated adverse comments by Mr. Singh’s superiors neither halted his promotion through RAW’s ranks nor denied him sought-after overseas postings. At the heart of the snowballing scandal around Mr. Singh’s defection is the breakdown of RAW’s in-house surveillance of its own staff, carried out by the Counter-Intelligence Security Division, popularly known as "mole-watchers." Each time the CIS Division has sought to raise security standards, RAW staff have revolted.

In 1980, RAW personnel actually went on strike against the CIS Division’s surveillance, claiming it was unnecessary harassment. A Delhi police officer attached to the CIS Division was held hostage in his room while RAW staffers took out a protest procession. Mercifully for the organisation, the then RAW chief, N.S. Santook, held firm and ensured that the strikers were sacked under provisions allowing the President of India to summarily terminate the services of Government employees. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi later introduced a law to prohibit strikes in sensitive organisations such as the Intelligence Bureau and RAW.

Matters again came to a head in 1985-1986. Intelligence Bureau counter-intelligence personnel monitoring a United States diplomat in Chennai discovered that a RAW field officer had been passing on sensitive information to the CIA. The officer was lured to New Delhi by CIS Division staff, who subsequently obtained a full confession. Although the officer spent a year at Tihar Jail in New Delhi, officials finally decided against prosecution, believing secrets relating to India’s operations in Sri Lanka could be exposed.

It did not escape notice that the Intelligence Bureau had detected the officer’s contacts, not RAW, which simply did not have an adequate mechanism in place. More worrying, the handling officer, the U.S. diplomat, disappeared just a day before the Indian officer’s seclusion by RAW. CIS Division personnel called for a full-scale mole-hunt, albeit to no avail. Random checks of officers of all ranks were also to have been carried out at RAW’s headquarters in New Delhi and at major field stations. Special photocopiers, which would record the document as well as the user, were to have been brought in.

By 1999, however, most of these bare-bones procedures had become dysfunctional. In Mr. Singh’s case, even basic counter-intelligence screening could have detected treachery at several stages. He was known to be in severe financial need after 1992-1993, following a serious automobile accident involving his daughter. Yet Mr. Singh’s wife spent up to six months a year abroad, entertained lavishly and lived in a house in an upmarket New Delhi neighbourhood with a market rent of over Rs.75,000 a month, supposedly gifted by a relative. Colleagues interacting socially with Mr. Singh were never questioned independently on what he wanted to know.

Mr. Singh’s success was the consequence of resistance at senior levels of RAW to the post-1986 counter-intelligence regime, which was steadily diluted through the 1990s. The CIS Division’s plans for broadening checks were shelved by officers who believed their rank and status automatically exempted them from reasonable suspicion. Worst of all, no effort was made to monitor Mr. Singh’s interaction with a close relative, an employee of the United States Agency for International Development, who RAW bosses were told was passing on classified documents to the officer. Mr Singh’s dealings with his source were never independently monitored, standard operating procedure to prevent an agent from turning hostile.

A section of RAW officers, both serving and retired, believe resistance to independent oversight is a consequence of the fact that the organisation’s special powers have not always been used judiciously at its highest levels. In the early 1990s, for example, RAW was tasked by the Government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to handle a goodwill donation to the African National Congress during the visit of President Nelson Mandela. RAW made the payment from its in-house funds, without asking for reimbursement from the Cabinet Secretariat. It later turned out that successive RAW chiefs had been holding cash from covert funds, while issuing certificates of utilisation to the Cabinet Secretariat. At the time, this covert fund-within-a-fund amounted to almost $ 8,00,000.

Praveen Swami

See online : The Hindu

P.S.

in The Hindu, June 15, 2004.

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