increasingly vulnerable to penetration,
India's external intelligence service
is beset by crisis.
By Praveen Swami
Wednesday, July 5, 2006
"All wish to be learned," wrote the Roman satiric poet
Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, "but few are willing to pay
the price." Those who depend on India's covert
services to help them negotiate an increasingly
dangerous world ought to be considering the dictum
Last week, the Delhi Police arrested S.S. Paul, a
computer systems operator at the National Security
Council Secretariat, on charges of espionage.
Intelligence Bureau counter-intelligence personnel
believe Paul was passing on NSC documents to Rosanna
Minchew, a Central Intelligence Agency operative who
operated under cover at the United States of America's
embassy in New Delhi.
Just how serious the damage is remains unclear -- NSC
assessments provide an overview of India's strategic
options and intentions rather than specific
operational details -- but the case has highlighted
the growing vulnerabilities of India's covert services
to the subversion of their agents. Counter-terrorism
and strategic intelligence cooperation has increased
since 2001 -- and with it, the prospect of
Paul is thought to have been introduced to Ms. Minchew
by Mukesh Saini, a former naval officer who recently
left the NSC to join the private sector. Mr. Saini was
involved in the Indo-U.S. Cyber Security Forum, a body
set up in 2002 that includes representatives of RAW,
the IB, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the
Department of Revenue Intelligence. Ms. Minchew was
able to leverage the introduction to good effect.
If nothing else, the espionage scandal demonstrates
the absence of serious thought on the 2004 defection
of Rabinder Singh, a senior RAW officer who turned out
to have been a CIA mole. Singh, who among other tasks
handled operations against Khalistan terrorists based
outside of India, is thought to have been recruited in
the course of legitimate counter-terrorism liaison
with the CIA -- a mirror image of the Paul case.
Singh's activities were first detected by a
middle-rank officer in RAW's operations wing itself. S
Chandrashekhar -- one of several key personnel who has
now left the organisation to join the private sector
amidst concerns about poor service conditions -- drew
the attention of counter-intelligence chief Amar
Bhushan to the fact that Singh had been asking for
information outside of his professional areas of
Singh was fed genuine but dated cipher traffic
generated by the U.S. mission in Islamabad which RAW
signals intelligence personnel had intercepted -- and
confirmed the suspicions about his conduct by promptly
At this point, RAW made a series of errors. Searches
were carried out at RAW's offices in New Delhi,
alerting Singh to the existence of a hunt for a
traitor. Intelligence Bureau counter-intelligence
experts were not informed of the case, even though RAW
lacked the capabilities to monitor Singh's multiple
phone and Internet accounts. Finally, physical
surveillance against Singh was minimal, allowing him
to escape through Nepal to the U.S.
None of these decisions has ever been explained,
fuelling suspicions that the real reason for RAW's
opaque handling of the case were political. Before
Singh was allowed to escape, RAW had after all
succeeded in identifying the traitor in its ranks and
built up evidence against him. But on election eve,
the National Democratic Alliance simply could not
afford a scandal that would call its warm relationship
with the U.S. into question.
For RAW, the latest demonstration of the
vulnerabilities of India's covert services couldn't
have come at a worse time. Even though Paul was
employed by the NSC, RAW's computer services director,
Ujjwal Dasgupta, is being investigated for failures of
supervision. Dasgupta's less-than-energetic watch on
his subordinate, sources say -- evidence of what is
being described as the worst-ever crisis of morale in
Frustrated by poor service conditions and promotion
prospects, at least five top officers have resigned
from RAW since 2003 to pursue opportunities in the
private sector, an unprecedented haemorrhage of cadre.
Apart from Mr. Chandrashekhar, Ashok Vajpayee, Jyoti
K. Sinha, S. Chandrashekhar, Sandeep Joshi, and Vijay
Tewatia are among the officers who had occupied
sensitive operational positions but have chosen to
Moreover, RAW is also facing problems retaining new
recruits. Of the six officers recruited by the covert
organisation from the civil services in 2002, informed
sources said, four have already chosen to return to
their parent organisations. Given that RAW's strength
of first-class officers only just exceeds a hundred,
the exodus marks a significant loss of badly-needed
Paradoxically, the exodus from RAW is in large part
the consequence of efforts to reform the organisation.
A core group of bureaucrats will meet later this month
to consider allowing more Indian Police Service
officers to serve on indefinite deputation to RAW,
reflecting National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan's
belief that its in-house cadre lacks the enterprise
and determination to face emerging challenges.
Experts, however, believe the proposed changes evade
the real issue. RAW is exceptional amongst major
covert services in maintaining no permanent
distinction between covert operatives who execute
secret tasks, and personnel who must liaise with
services such as the CIA or public bodies, such as
analysts and area specialists. As a result, personnel
with sensitive operational information are exposed to
potentially compromising contacts.
Underpinning this curious state of affairs is the lure
of the big prize for those who work at RAW: overseas
assignments. Postings in major western capitals and
training opportunities in the U.S. or Europe are seen
as payoffs, not jobs. Senior officers without language
or area skills often hold sensitive western postings.
Typically, RAW sent senior officers abroad for
hostage-negotiation training in 2000 -- all of whom
retired soon afterwards.
Will bringing in more IPS officers help make RAW less
vulnerable to penetration? If history is a guide, no.
Several of those involved in past controversies
involving RAW were individuals who came to the service
from the IPS, including Samsher Singh, K.V.
Unnikrishnan, and Suchit Das. Others, like Singh
himself, had military backgrounds. No espionage
allegations, notably, have ever been drawn by RAW's
own direct recruits.
Organisational architecture, not individual
background, is clearly the real issue. From RAW's
inception in September 1968, it drew personnel with a
wide spectrum of specialist skills, including
scientists, civil servants, policemen and soldiers --
a significant break with the IPS-led Intelligence
Bureau, which evolved out of William Sleeman's East
India Company-era Thugee and Dacoity Department.
RAW's first chief, R.N. Kao, emphasised the need for
his service to have its own cadre so the special
professional skills it needed could be developed. Part
of that legacy still survives. Unlike staff taken on
deputation, directly-recruited RAW personnel must
learn a foreign language, spend time with armed forces
on India's frontiers and acquire what spies call
"tradecraft" — special espionage-related skills.
However, credible allegations of nepotism led the
Janata Party to terminate RAW recruitment in 1977. In
1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reconstituted the
organisation, and all those on deputation were offered
the option of joining its own cadre or leaving. But
allegations of nepotism again surfaced and, under
Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, the Union Public
Service Commission was discreetly involved in the
Over time, though, the IPS again came to exercise
significant influence with the organisation. Growing
numbers of IPS officers remained in RAW without
joining its cadre even after the expiry of their
In some cases, there were good reasons for bending the
rules. For example, one of RAW's stellar operatives in
east Asia could only receive a well-earned promotion
once deputation rules were bent.
Sadly, though, influence-peddling also often played a
role in IPS deputations to RAW, and its in-house cadre
personnel were left feeling that their career
interests were being ignored.
While IPS leadership of the Intelligence Bureau has
served that organisation well, RAW insiders argue that
their organisation needs both diverse skills-sets and
staff willing to commit themselves to a lifetime in
the covert services.
Action is needed to address these grievances -- and to
bring about the kinds of institutional reforms India's
covert services desperately need. As early as 2002,
former RAW officer B. Raman had asserted that "we
might find one day that the sensitive establishments
of this country have been badly penetrated under the
guise of intelligence cooperation" -- a warning that
India can no longer afford to ignore.
Intelligence Bureau director E.S.L. Narasimhan and his
counter-intelligence staff deserve applause for
terminating the penetration of the NSC just months
after it began. Without serious reform, though, the
next scandal is most likely just months away.