April 08, 2008
In May, it will be four years since Major Rabinder Singh, a joint secretary at the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, who was found to have been working for some years as a mole of the Central Intelligence Agency, gave a slip to R&AW’s counter-intelligence division, which had placed him under surveillance, and fled to the United States along with his family via Katmandu, Nepal.
L’Affaire Rabinder Singh remains as mysterious today as it was in 2004. Nobody has an idea of what damage he caused to India’s national interests and national security. In the meanwhile, he and his family reportedly live comfortably in the US.
There have been instances of the penetration of the National Security Council Secretariat, which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office, by the CIA after Dr Manmohan Singh became prime minister. Some NSCS staffers were suspected of having clandestine links with a lady CIA officer posted as a diplomat in the US embassy in Delhi. Her task was to liaise with the concerned government departments in connection with the Indo-US Cyber Security Forum set up jointly by the US and India when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister. She utilised this opportunity to allegedly recruit moles in the NSCS, which coordinates the work of the Indo-US Cyber Security Forum.
The Indian intelligence community had been penetrated by the CIA at the middle and senior levels some years ago. In the 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, an Indian Police Service officer, who served in R&AW as a director (one rank below joint secretary) and headed the agency’s office in Chennai, was found to have been working for the CIA for some years. The Intelligence Bureau office in Chennai detected his clandestine contacts with a CIA officer who was posted as a consular officer at the US consulate in Chennai and alerted R&AW. The agency immediately had him detained and interrogated. He was in preventive custody in New Delhi’s Tihar jail for a year till his interrogation concluded. However, he was not prosecuted.
In the 1990s, when P V Narasimha Rao was prime minister, a very senior Indian Police Service officer serving in the Intelligence Bureau — who would have been in the running for appointment as the director, IB — was suspected to have been working for a woman CIA officer (Heidi August), then posted as a diplomat at the US embassy in Delhi. A junior Intelligence Bureau officer accidentally discovered that she had a mobile phone, which was registered in the senior officer’s name. Joint enquiries by the IB and R&AW exposed this officer’s suspect links with August; he was sent on premature retirement.
These were the better-known cases of penetration, which received publicity in the media. There were other cases of penetration of the intelligence community, which the government of the day managed to keep under wraps.
Penetration of an intelligence agency by a foreign agency is nothing unusual. It happens often. MI6, the British external intelligence agency, was famously penetrated by the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, through the India-born Kim Philby, who worked for MI6 under the cover of a journalist. Philby fled to Moscow aboard a Soviet submarine before he was exposed and lived there until his death.
There is also the case of Aldrich Ames, a middle-level CIA officer in charge of counter-intelligence against the Soviet and Russian intelligence agencies. He was exposed as a mole of Soviet intelligence who unveiled the identities of many CIA moles in the Soviet and Russian governments to their intelligence agencies. These moles were later executed. Ames was prosecuted and now serves a life sentence without parole.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
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Also read: Did the CIA help Rabinder Singh flee?
April 08, 2008
Rabinder Singh has been able to defeat every effort by the Indian government to arrest him. In the midst of the high-pitched noises about the strong India-US relationship, many of his former colleagues believe, Singh lives in an American sanctuary.
Rabinder Singh’s case has been hushed up by the governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. It is alleged that the moment R&AW officers grew suspicious about Singh at the beginning of 2004, it immediately alerted the Vajpayee government, which did not want it to be played up to avoid embarrassment during the campaign for the general election.
The Manmohan Singh government did not want the case to be vigorously pursued lest it become a hurdle in the way of its policy of developing a new strategic relationship with the US. Other political parties showed no interest in the case. There was neither a detailed parliamentary enquiry nor even a token debate in Parliament.
What ominously distinguished the Rabinder Singh case from other past cases of penetration of Indian intelligence by foreign agencies was that the moment he came under suspicion, the CIA helped him and his family escape to the US via Katmandu, allegedly giving them US passports under false names. This was similar to what the KGB did for Philby. The KGB, in Philby’s case, and the CIA in Singh’s issue, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that their mole was not arrested and interrogated by helping them escape.
Deniability is an important principle religiously followed by intelligence agencies all over the world. They refrain from doing things which might amount to their admitting that a particular officer was their mole. When their mole comes under suspicion and is about to be arrested, they do not help him to escape arrest because that would amount to their admitting that he or she was a mole. They let the mole be arrested and interrogated by local counter-intelligence and compensate for the hardships suffered by the mole in jail by looking after his family. This is the unwritten rule of business in the intelligence game.
Image: Former CIA operative Aldrich Ames (centre) comes out of a US federal court on April 28, 1994, after he pleaded guilty to espionage and tax evasion charges and was sentenced to life in prison.
Photograph: Robert Giroux/AFP/Getty Images
Also read: Remember Rabinder Singh?
April 08, 2008
The agencies help or even force a mole to escape only when that mole is part of a spy ring operated by them and they are worried that his arrest and interrogation might expose other moles, probably doing more important work. The KGB went to extraordinary lengths to help Philby escape to the then USSR because he was aware of the identities of other KGB moles in British intelligence. The Russian intelligence did not help Ames escape because he was not part of a ring.The fact that the CIA went to extraordinary lengths to help or probably even force Rabinder Singh to escape clearly indicated that he was part of a ring and that the CIA wanted him to escape so that the identities of other CIA moles in Indian intelligence were not exposed.
The case of Rabinder Singh was much, much more important and ominous than any other instance of CIA penetration of R&AW, the Intelligence Bureau and the National Security Council Secretariat. Singh was a mediocre officer who did not have much access to sensitive intelligence. But he was a very good networker who entertained lavishly and maintained excellent relations with other R&AW officers, who had access to much more sensitive intelligence which would have been of use to the CIA.
The suspicion was that he helped the CIA not by giving sensitive intelligence, but by giving introductions to other officers, who had access to it. He was what in intelligence parlance is called a talent spotter par excellence, someone who helped the CIA recruit other moles. That is what Philby used to do for the KGB.
Singh’s escape was a very serious breach of security, the like of which had not happened in the history of Indian intelligence. Philby’s case was thoroughly investigated by the British government and the House of Commons informed of the results of the enquiry. There was a detailed US Congressional enquiry into the Ames case and the voluminous Congressional report on the enquiry is available to the American public.
The Manmohan Singh government asked P K Hormis Tharakan, the R&AW chief from 2005 to 2007, to look into the Singh case and submit his findings. Tharakan interviewed senior R&AW officers, serving as well as retired, under whom Singh had worked, but his report has remained confined to the archives of R&AW and the Prime Minister’s Office.
A retired senior R&AW officer told India Abroad, “Only the Indian-American community can help find Rabinder Singh in the US. I have no hope because even if Indian Americans meet him at parties or ethnic events he must have a different identity, a new passport and some facade of a business address. How will they recognise him? I think it’s a hopeless case. The Indian government will have to live with the shame called Rabinder Singh.”
Image: An undated portrait of Kim Philby. Just as the KGB went to extraordinary lengths to help Philby escape to the then USSR, the CIA ensured that Rabinder Singh was flown out before he could be apprehended so that its secrets were safe.
Photograph: AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Also read: The forgotten spy