March 31, 2011

Foreign Secretary saw closer cooperation on counter-terror with U.S. as ‘silver lining' of 26/11

Nirupama Subramanian

On the ground, though Indian investigators shared much evidence with the FBI, the distrust did not disappear

CHENNAI: Shivshankar Menon, who was Foreign Secretary at the time of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, believed that the crisis presented India with an opportunity to build closer cooperation with the United States.

In a cable dated November 30, 2008 ( 180629: confidential) accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, U.S. Ambassador David Mulford wrote that Mr. Menon saw this as the “only silver lining” of the gruesome attacks.

Mr. Menon told the envoy that India had experienced incidents of terrorism earlier, but the Mumbai attacks were “on a whole new level.”

According to Mr. Mulford, the Foreign Secretary said: “My first thought was back to your frequent offers of counter-terrorism assistance, which it is clear we really need.”

Referring to a slew of newspaper editorials suggesting that India should learn from the experiences of the U.S. in such contexts, the Foreign Secretary told Mr. Mulford this could be a “silver lining.”

“We must make opportunity out of crisis,” Mr. Menon said, adding, “we look forward to cooperating as closely as we can.”

The Foreign Secretary's remarks have to be seen in the context of opposition in powerful sections of the Indian security establishment to counter-terrorism cooperation with the U.S., and their differences with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) over this.

The opposition stemmed from the Indian security agencies' distrust of the U.S. and the perception that its cooperation with India was bound to be half-hearted as long as it continued to depend on Pakistan for counter-terror cooperation in Afghanistan.

The MEA has traditionally taken a more liberal view, and there is an illustration of this in a cable sent by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi on July 10, 2006 ( 70813: confidential).

It quotes MEA Additional Secretary (International Organisations) K.C. Singh as telling Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, that allegations in the Indian press that a U.S. diplomat used the joint Cyber Security Forum to recruit officers in India's National Security Council Secretariat and that the issue would give Indian intelligence agencies were an excuse not to cooperate with the U.S.

He suggested that a planned visit by a high-level envoy on counter-terrorism cooperation be postponed until a meeting of the India-U.S. Counterterrorism Joint Working Group in October or November 2006. The passage of time would allow for “a more conducive climate among Indian intelligence agencies,” he told Mr. Pyatt.

The cable noted that Mr. Singh himself was committed to counter-terrorism cooperation and had raised the allegations “more in a spirit of sorrow than anger.”

A face-off

Though Indian investigators subsequently shared plenty of evidence from the Mumbai attacks with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the distrust did not disappear.

Other cables published by The Hindu show that behind the scenes, India and the U.S. had a face-off over how much information from its own Mumbai investigation the FBI could share with Pakistan.

India eventually relented to a conditional sharing of the U.S. demand for information-sharing with Pakistan. As the cables reveal, even the FBI did not get an easy pass to investigate the attack.

When Mr. Mulford and Mr. Menon spoke on November 30, 2008, hours after the security forces had brought the situation in Mumbai under control, one of the items on the Ambassador's agenda was to tell the Foreign Secretary that wherever American citizens were among victims in such situations, his government “insisted” on enhanced law enforcement cooperation and intelligence liaison.

Mr. Menon was able to confirm to him that the Intelligence Bureau had already cleared an eight-member FBI team arriving on November 30 to participate in the investigations. But, he told the Ambassador, until the sites were secured, the team would have to work off-site.

The tensions would continue. But there was cooperation, too. Enough for National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan to declare to the new U.S. Ambassador, Timothy Roemer, on August 11, 2009, ten months after the attacks, that counterterrorism and intelligence-cooperation was “one of the most ‘vibrant' areas of U.S.-India cooperation” ( 220281: confidential/noforn).

Mr. Naryanan wanted the U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Cutler Blair to visit India by October 2009 to “build on our success.”

But when Mr. Roemer asked Mr. Narayanan if India would be willing to share its classified “after action report” on Mumbai, the envoy noted that the NSA “demurred.”

Pointing out that the report had been prepared by the Maharashtra government, he told Mr. Roemer that the Central government would share it as soon as it became available.

When Mr. Roemer suggested that the U.S. and India consider holding a conference to compare lessons learned from 9/11 (New York) and 26/11 (Mumbai), Mr. Narayanan suggested that perhaps an “off the record” brainstorming session would be most useful.

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.')

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