By Ravi Shankar
29 Jul 2011
Days before the pulchritudinous Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Hina Rabbani Khar, was to meet Kashmiri separatist Yasin Malik in Lahore on July 25, Indian intelligence knew. Especially after last year’s curfew-ridden months and violence, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Military Intelligence (MI) were working overtime in Kashmir. They passed on information to New Delhi that Hurriyat leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq were preparing to leave for New Delhi on the eve of the Pakistan foreign minister’s visit. The mandarins of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that also included officers from Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and IB met. It was decided that if Rabbani met Hurriyat leaders at the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi, it could be advantage India—the moral high ground of a democracy where dissent is tolerated. It would also expose Pakistan as a country officially encouraging separatism and violence in Kashmir for the world has been watching since the FBI arrested Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) lobbyist Ghulam Nabi Fai who received millions of dollars from the ISI to lobby for Kashmir.
Such is the smoke and mirrors world of espionage—nothing is what it seems to be. “We call it perception management,” says an intelligence officer. “We communicate to the Pakistanis through separatists, especially people like Mirwaiz and Malik. They say one thing in public, but to our counterparts in Islamabad, they say something else in private; after all Mirwaiz’s father was murdered by the ISI, his school burnt down and his aide was recently shot. He has no love for Pakistan. When things get too hot in Kashmir, it is they who tell Pakistan to back off,” adds the officer.
A senior Israeli diplomat posted in Delhi says that Indian intelligence is one of the finest in the world. But information dissemination and coordination among India’s various intelligence agencies are a plague. “Terror related intel operations are effective only if you have good HUMINT (human intelligence),” says Jaidev Ranade, former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat and counter-intelligence expert. According to a senior IB official, the 26/11 terrorists were using SIM cards planted on them by the Jammu and Kashmir Police. It’s these cards that opened the gateway that enabled Indian intelligence to track the calls and source them to Pakistan. That information was later shared with other agencies, especially Israel’s Mossad, after the two Pakistani terrorists—Babar Imran and Nasir—occupied Chabad House for 45 hours and killed six Israelis during the attacks. According to C D Sahay, former director, RAW, there was enough intelligence to avoid 26/11. The Israelis say that after 26/11, Indian intelligence and Mossad work closely together, especially on Islamic terror. “We have common interests” is the explanation.
The subcontinent is a beehive of intelligence and counterintelligence activity and spy craft. There are two reasons for this. One is Islamic terror with AfPak as the hub. Two, India is spending billions of dollars on armament and other defence equipment. Together, they are compelling motives for most major intelligence agencies to spread their net as wide as possible in India: the main players being—apart from the ubiquitous ISI— the CIA, the FSB (Russia’s spy agency), China’s MSS (Ministry of State Security), DGFI (Bangladesh’s intelligence agency) and the Mossad. MI6 and the French have a presence, too, but their information gathering is largely related to defence. To make friends and influence people, various time- tested methods are used—women, booze, bribes, foreign trips, scholarships and cyber craft.
SEX AND THE SPY
The famous American spymaster, the CIA’s Michael J Barrett, called espionage “the world’s second oldest profession and just as honourable as the first”. Sex is one of the popular weapons of spycraft, used extensively in India by Pakistan and to a lesser degree by the CIA. The Russians and the Chinese, according to RAW sources, prefer to entrap Indian diplomats abroad.
A senior RAW operative who held postings in Washington and Beijing speaks about a Pakistani Lothario diplomat in Delhi who had half of the city’s prominent socialites as friends. He was posted as a First Secretary; his espionage skills got him a quick promotion to Counselor. His modus operandi was to use his formidable seduction skills on high society women who had access to the highest levels in the Indian establishment. The male Mata Hari would gather information through his network of sexual conquests; some of them even had parallel romantic relationships with Indian bureaucrats, politicians and even some senior journalists. All Pakistani high commissioners in India entertain lavishly, and the capital’s crème de la crème—journalists, businessmen and social butterflies—is invited. Cultural exchanges between India and Pakistan lead to qawwalis and mushairas; fertile grounds for information harvesting.
“He even kept a little diary that listed his conquests,” says a senior IB operative. “Women were classified according to their vital statistics, temperament and region —Marwari, Punjabi, Bengali or South Indian. He wrote that Bengali women were stubborn while Bihari and Punjabi women were easier to manipulate.”
So, when the IB has such detailed information on a Pakistani spy, why don’t they expel him? Simple. It’s easier to keep an eye on a known spy, as well as on the Indians who are close to him.
According to the IB, the ISI maintains three levels of operatives. At the lowest level are those who are lowly paid and are merely asked to reconnoitre cantonments, police stations and government buildings and report back. The second rung is more trusted; for example, they would be asked to create long term cover stories: like opening a small shop in the vicinity of the cantonment, cultivate locals and soldiers and gather information on officers, and the coming and goings-on in the cantonment.
The third are unique as spies—good looking, physically strong young boys and men. An Indian intelligence officer says that the ISI took a leaf out of the East German spymaster Markus Wolf’s book to create male honey traps and woo lonely secretaries of influential men in government. They would entrap lonely diplomats (like Madhuri Gupta who was arrested in 2010) or army wives, including those of non-commissioned officers. Indian intelligence was alerted to this operation through telephone intercepts traced to Pakistan. A massive sexual offensive against India is being planned by the ISI, according to Indian intelligence in Kashmir. Around 900-odd women spies are being trained by ISI, to “honey trap” important Indian establishment figures. Punjab and Kashmir police are keeping a lookout for the Pakistani Pussy Galores crossing the border.
A RAW official says that Indian intelligence cultivates Pakistani assets as well, but more at home than in Karachi or Islamabad. This is because the ISI keeps all Indians, both visitors and diplomats, on a tight leash. What the Pakistani spy wants in exchange first is sex. That too, they insist on Hindu women only. “Honey traps are not our style,” says an intelligence officer who has served abroad under diplomatic cover. “But there are enough call girls who are passed off as Hindu women.” Of course, the Pakistani spies are also paid in cash and expensive foreign liquor in exchange for information.
RAW officials say that Pakistani politicians visiting India —usually delegations of MPs—ask for film actresses and starlets as local entertainment. The ISI connects them to upscale pimps, who then are put in touch with visiting Pakistani politicos. “There are travel restrictions on Pakistanis, so the girls are flown into Delhi,” says an IB source. It makes it easier for the IB to keep tabs on them. As well as compromise the politicians and turn them into potential intelligence assets for the RAW.
There are many cases of successful honey traps in the saga or intelligence and counterintelligence, but few are revealed. Exposure is usually quick and the diplomat is sent home usually on the first available flight. In one case, a Pakistani female agent compromised an Indian naval attaché posted at the Indian mission in Islamabad. At that time, the naval officer’s uncle was a senior bureaucrat attached to the office of the President of India, which made him a prize asset for the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis also knew he had a glad eye, especially for the wives of fellow officers. They entrapped him with a beautiful female ISI agent working with the Pakistani Navy; they would go off to the Pakistani hill station of Murree for trysts. Then one day, she came up with the standard blackmail line that she was pregnant. The ISI then began to put the heat on him, but the naval officer had the good sense to speak to the Indian ambassador who put him on the first flight out of Islamabad. After debriefing and enquiry, he was asked to resign his commission. There is a similar case that happened in Beijing when an Indian diplomat was having two affairs simultaneously—one with his maid and the other with his Chinese linguist—who were both Chinese agents. While forced to choose, he took the linguist out for dinner to tell her it was over. By mistake, the speed dial button of a friend, a senior Indian diplomat posted in Beijing, was pressed. He then taped the whole conversation. The disgrace claimed the ageing Don Juan, who had less than a year to retire. A RAW officer posted in Beijing remembers a similar case when his friend—a young American diplomat posted as a 3rd Secretary in the Cyber Division who was honey trapped by a gorgeous Chinese girl—approached him for advice. His counsel was that the young man seeks help from the US mission. The American did and was flown home immediately.
OLD BOY NETWORK
The reason why Pakistan has been able to cultivate sources among Delhi’s elite is, class. All Pakistani High Commissioners to India have a common social profile—Oxbridge educated, Westernised and immensely rich, they rely on the old boy network with Indians who they went to college and school with; who now occupy high positions. An intelligence official in Delhi, who specialises in Pakistan affairs, says that the ISI targets Delhi’s Punjabi upper class that are fed the cross-border Punjabi Indo-Pak brotherhood. Former Prime Minister
I K Gujral—no Pakistani agent—was melted enough by the Punjabi brotherhood line to disband the entire RAW network across Pakistan, one that had taken years to build. Intelligence legend says the then RAW chief was ordered to give the names of the assets to Pakistan to earn “goodwill”, which was returned in the form of executions carried out by General Ziauddin of the ISI. Pakistani upper class Indian assets in Delhi are “unknowing conduits” of information, according to senior RAW source. It is a subtle operation that is a combination of confidences shared at private dinners, Urdu poetry sessions and musical evenings and information passed on in the interests of “neighbourly peace”. Gujral’s act was to cause lasting damage to RAW, which in retrospect would’ve been in a better position to handle Pak-sponsored Islamist terror.
RAW’s operations in Pakistan had been very effective during the Khalistan movement. In the mid-1980s, the agency set up the Counter Intelligence Team-X (CIT-X) and Counter Intelligence Team-J (CIT-J)—two highly covert arms to react with violence within Pakistan whenever a Pak-sponsored massacre happened in Punjab. They were so successful that the ISI chief was forced to ask for a meeting with his RAW counterpart to draw up the rules of engagement on Punjab with the then Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan bin-Talal acting as referee. The prince’s wife, Princess Sarvath, is Pakistani and presumably was contacted by the ISI.
“At that time we had an advantage,” says Moloy Dhar, IB counterintelligence expert who was involved in the operations. “The media gave us silent cooperation. It was war. So we did it and finished it.”
Those who are “skittish” about Pakistanis are approached by another route—of other diplomats. According to an IB official, Bangladeshis are perfect candidates. “Many with old East Pakistan memories are still sympathetic towards Pakistan,” he says. “Money changes hands.”
Ranade says there is a ring of mosques along the Indo-Bangladesh border that function as a base for ISI operations. According to a senior MI source, the Bangladesh spy agency DGFI (Directorate General of Forces Intelligence) actively helps in Pakistani infiltration through the eastern border—the terror module that coordinated the 1999 Kandahar hijack was from Bangladesh. According to Indian diplomatic sources, the former Bangladeshi High Commissioner was pro-Pakistan while his deputy has strong pro-India feelings.
“In the pre-Hasina days, the DGFI was hand in glove with Pakistan’s ISI,” says Dhar. “They trained the ULFA, the Nagas, and the Manipuris against India. But once Hasina came to power, they were driven out.”
It’s not just the Bangladeshis that the Chinese use for eliciting third party information. The Chinese bribe cooperative third world diplomats to spy on each other. The role of Chinese journalists with huge expense accounts cultivating contacts in the media and the establishment in Delhi has come under the RAW and IB scanner. Indians who have similar ideological sympathies help them: those who study or teach in certain universities or belong to left-leaning political parties. Many of them are offered “free trips” to China where all tabs, including shopping, are picked up. “Indian missions overseas do it too,” says a retired diplomat. “We offer the India experience.” But there is a difference. “The Chinese follow up and seek a quid pro quo in the relevant fields,” says Ranade.
The Chinese are also good at cultivating sources in government. A classic case is Huawei Technologies, the Bangalore-based Chinese corporation that was blacklisted from entering the telecom sector after a CIA tipoff on its Taliban connection. Government sources say Huawei flouted all regulations, but “was in business before we were even aware of it”. The company’s modus operandi was to recruit former GMs and retired senior officers of MTNL and BSNL on huge salaries, and thus use their government connections to its benefit. In one case, a serving MTNL official—due to retire in two years—was contacted and offered a job at a huge salary. “Hook him before he retires is Huawei’s policy,” says an intelligence analyst.
The IB says that when it comes to hacking, the Chinese rule. When the PMO computers were hacked into in 2010, the hackers chose only those machines belonging to officials like the JS (Pak), JS (China) and JS (US).
Unlike the Chinese, the CIA has been operating in India for decades, even before it helped the Indian government set up RAW after the 1962 Indo-China War. Honey traps have been frequently used, but today the CIA’s main lure is money, jobs and scholarships for the children of powerful bureaucrats and politicians to study abroad. “Many journalists and babus are partial to the United States,” says an intelligence officer. “Everyone’s kids want to go to the US to study. The Americans help them with visas and funds depending on how useful they are.”
The RAW and IB are keeping a watch on a “couple of senior persons,” on whom “there are strong suspicions”. When a kid whose school record has been indifferent suddenly gets into a good American school, “light bulbs go on”. The CIA is sometimes loyal to its top Indian agents: Rabinder Singh, a former RAW operative who disappeared after coming under suspicion of being a CIA agent was helped by the Americans to flee the country, according to RAW officials. They supposedly helped Singh generously when he had a near-fatal car accident in Syria. When Singh was exposed, RAW sources say the CIA supplied him a false passport and spirited him away through Nepal.
IN THEIR DEFENCE
Unlike the Pakistanis and the CIA, the Russians use honey traps only to get information on defence deals—Commodore Sukhvinder Singh is a case in point. “The Russians are lying low,” says Dhar. “Americans no longer see India as an enemy. The need to use honey traps like before has become much less.”
The Mossad is aggressive when it comes to garnering defence information; according to MI sources, there are many Indo-US deals that happen under the radar. Mossad targets Indian security and defence officials using friendly arms dealers in Delhi. The incentive is not women—but money, booze and foreign trips. The Mossad’s other focus is on anti-Pak operations. According to a senior IB operative, India’s small town Muslim ghettos—“We have to liberate the other nation in Hindustan,” a slogan coined by former Pak Intel chief Hamid Gul—are ideal hiding places for Pakistani agents acting in concert with local terror modules. The Mossad uses its Sabbath houses in India to keep tabs on suspected terrorists. Young Israeli decommissioned soldiers visiting India also help the Mossad. Even during India’s Socialist pro-Arab days, the RAW maintained a covert relationship with the Mossad, mainly to gain from Israel’s West Asia and North Africa information as well as learning counterterrorism techniques, says an intelligence officer.
With so many foreign agencies operating on Indian soil, it’s not as if the IB and RAW are quiet. Indian intelligence has infiltrated not just the Jihadi support groups operating in Kashmir and Bengal, but also has a strong presence in Nepal. An MI operative in Kashmir speaks of infiltrating Kashmiri mosques to identify hate speakers. “Since I’m tall and fair and look like a Kashmiri, I blended well in the mosque wearing a phiran and offering Namaz. But had I opened my mouth, I would’ve been dead, exposed as a non-Kashmiri. I would pretend to be dumb.” Some were not so lucky. A retired spymaster remembers how he sent an operative into Pakistan who spent the night in a sarai along the border. “Something he did gave him away and he was picked up after prayer,” he says. “After many years, we heard he had been thrown into jail and kept there.” The world of intelligence has its comic interludes too: the turf wars between various arms are a block to information cooperation, especially along the border. “Sometimes the MI, IB and the RAW use the same agent without knowing he works for the others,” says an old Pakistan desk hand. “He coolly collects money from all three for the same bit of info.”
Money makes the intelligence world go around. Many Indian NGOs are funded by various intelligence agencies, including the ISI and the CIA. Every year an international conference of NGOs takes place in Geneva on South Asian issues. It’s open season. “The Indian government funds its own NGOs to counter anti-India propaganda,” says a retired RAW operative. “We also identify who works for who.”
According to South Asia military intelligence expert Colonel R Hariharan, “Intelligence agencies use three major human weaknesses—wine, women, and money power—to make those with access to secrets part with information.”
Secrets are the subtext of power. And spies the deadly couriers.