Sunday, June 7, 2009

Counter-intelligence failure or what?

This is it. The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office have conveyed to the Ministry of External Affairs that they don't have any information concerning the 1971 CIA spy case, brining about a near closure to the matter so far as they are concerned. The PMO had earlier stated on these lines only. The latest response from the MEA comes in compliance of the CIC order following a complaint filed by me.

"The undersigned is directed to … say that no relevant information … is available with the undersigned," wrote Neeraj Kansal, Director (CS), Ministry of Home Affairs.

The point is how could this all be! Consider the following facts:

1. In August 1971 The New York Times hinted at the CIA's penetration of the Indian establishment.

2. In December The Washington Post carried investigative articles saying that the CIA was privy to "even some of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's secret conversations" and that the Agency "uncovered reports from a source close to Mrs Gandhi".

3. In 1972, Mrs Gandhi publicly told Congress workers that "she had information that the CIA had become active in India".

4. Two days after her statement, US Secretary of State took up the matter with Indian Foreign Minister. According to the declassified State Department record of the meeting, Foreign Minister Swaran Singh bragged to William Rogers in the meeting that the Government "has its own sources and knows that CIA has been in contact with people in India in 'abnormal ways'." He asserted that the government "had information that proceedings of Congress Working Committee were known to US officials within two hours of meetings."

5. In 1973, an affidavit filed in the US revealed that the CIA felt that the NYT story of August 1971 "had put in jeopardy the life of an intelligence agent" in India.

6. The New York Times reported on 9 December 1973 that its August 1971 story constituted a "major leak" which "was believed by White House officials to have jeopardized a high-level CIA informant inside the Indian government."

7. On 10 December 1973, a story in The Hindu concluded that the Government of India "had reasons to suspect that the informer might have been a minister." A story in The Times of India implied that the agent's information had been backed by the interception of Soviet radio-telephone conversations via NSA space satellites.

8. In 1979, Thomas Powers, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and an authority on the CIA, wrote in his book that an "Indian politician in Gandhi's cabinet" was on the Agency's rolls.

9. During the 1979 electioneering, Jagjivan Ram's name was dragged as that of the spy. Ram was India's Defense Minister during the 1971 war.

10. In 1983, noted US journalist Seymour Hersh identified former Prime Minister Morarji Desai as a CIA agent in his book.

11. In June 1983, Desai filed $50 million libel suit in the US against Hersh. He himself deposed before court twice and also did Dr Henry Kissinger, the US National Security Advisor during the 1971 war. Desai lost the case in 1992.

12. In 1988, a Mumbai newspaper story based on a RAW report implicated Yashwant Rao Chavan, Finance Minister during the 1971 war.

13. In 2005, declassified CIA/State Department/White House records confirmed the existence of a highly-placed CIA mole operating out of the Indira Cabinet. The records revealed the extent of the damage caused to India's national interest by the CIA mole.

Now, the ministries' responses under the RTI Act would have one believe that none of it rang any bell in the South and North Blocks. This is to say that one of the biggest counter-intelligence failures of all times occurred in this regard.

But there is still time before one can draw final conclusions. Because the record of the meeting between Indian Foreign Minister and US Secretary of State in 1972 has been held back by the MEA as a classified record. The Cabinet Secretariat too has decided not to disclose information relating to Cabinet meetings when the leak took place and the RAW communication to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The CIC is yet to handle that matter.

As I wait for the RTI process to complete, I wonder if filing the applications was the right thing to do. Because, I did know that most information relating to this case would be held by the intelligence agencies, which are both beyond the RTI act and nor are they allowed to release any of their records, no matter how old or historically important.

But there was no doubt in my mind that given all the above 13 points, the MEA and PMO must have retained certain records. The MEA, for example, is the nodal agency to collect information from abroad. It is amazing that the MEA, for instance, should not have any information on the Morarji's legal battle in the US and that it should transfer this query to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which primarily looks after the internal affairs of the country.

There is certainly something amiss here. It seems there are loopholes that must be plugged. If India has to become an open polity like the world's greatest democracies, it must get proactive about releasing her old secrets that no longer require state protection.

Media coverage: NBT, News X, Zee, MSN, NDTV, Zopag

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