Periodic misunderstandings and mutual bitterness in the relations between co-operating intelligence agencies are part of the intelligence game, writes strategic expert B Raman.
The Central Intelligence Agency's penetration of the Chennai office of the Research & Analysis Wing in the 1980s to collect intelligence about India's role in Sri Lanka, its penetration of the Intelligence Bureau in the 1990s to collect intelligence about its counter-intelligence set-up, its post-2001 penetration of the RAW through Major Rabinder Singh, who was helped by the CIA to flee to the US to avoid being arrested and interrogated by the Indian counter-intelligence, and its post-2004 penetration of the National Security Council Secretariat through the mechanism of the Indo-US Cyber Security Forum created feelings of bad blood and bitterness in the relations between the intelligence communities of the two countries, but this did not last long.
The intelligence communities of the two countries realised the importance of not allowing such instances of perceived betrayal of confidence to affect their long-term relationship, which has served the two countries well in the past and which would be necessary in the future if they have to strengthen their strategic relationship.
A permanent itch for penetration is ingrained in an intelligence professional. He or she keeps looking out all the time for opportunities for penetration. It is immaterial whether the set-up to be penetrated is that of a friend or a foe. The important question is whether the penetration would produce valuable intelligence and whether the resulting intelligence is of such value as to warrant risk-taking to the extent of temporary misunderstandings with the country whose set-up is penetrated.
Past instances of misunderstandings and unhappiness in counter-terrorism co-operation between the intelligence communities of India and the US date from the days of Khalistani terrorism in Punjab, the Mumbai blasts of March,1993 and the outbreak of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir in 1989.
The Indian intelligence community always felt and continues to feel that in matters relating to the complicity of Pakistan in acts of terrorism in India, the co-operation of the US intelligence left much to be desired. This position shows no signs of changing even after the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai in which for the first time Pakistan-sponsored terrorists killed not only 141 Indian nationals, but also 25 foreigners -- six of them US nationals and six others Jewish either with Israeli nationality or with dual Israeli-US nationality.
Despite this, there has been a qualitative change in the Indo-US co-operation in counter-terrorism since 9/11. This change has been particularly noticeable in four matters. Firstly, the US has recognised that some of the terrorist organisations operating in India such as the Lashkar-e-Tayiba are largely, if not wholly, Pakistani organisations and not Kashmiri organisations as claimed by Pakistan.
Secondly, examples of advance sharing of preventive intelligence are increasing. An example was the reported alerts from the US intelligence in September, 2008, about the plans of the LeT for a sea-borne attack on some hotels in Mumbai. Thirdly, there is a greater readiness on the part of the US to place its forensic resources at the disposal of the Indian investigators to facilitate their investigation into acts of terrorism. This was clearly seen after the 26/11 attacks.
Fourthly, there is a greater willingness on the part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to assist the Indian investigators in the prosecution of the terrorists. Before 26/11, the FBI was reluctant to allow its experts to testify before Indian courts. After 26/11, it allowed its experts to testify in Indian courts through video-conferencing.
At a time when the co-operation was developing in a positive and mutually beneficial direction, some suspicion has crept in the relations between the intelligence communities of the two countries following the discovery of the Chicago cell of the LeT consisting of David Coleman Headley alias Daood Gilani and Tahawwur Hussain Rana and their arrest by the FBI. Even if it is true -- one will never be able to find that out definitively -- that Headley was a penetration agent of the US intelligence to monitor the activities of the LeT, the Indian intelligence should have no grouse against its US counterpart on that account.
Since the US agencies fear that any future terrorist attack in the US homeland would originate either from Pakistan or from the Pakistani Diaspora abroad, their efforts to penetrate organisations in Pakistan or of Pakistani origin in order to collect preventive intelligence not only about terrorists but also their links with the narcotics world are understandable. Placed in a similar situation, that is what the Indian intelligence would be doing.
After 9/11, there has been considerable criticism of intelligence agencies all over the world -- including in India and the US -- for their inadequacies in the field of human intelligence (HUMINT).The only effective way of improving the collection of HUMINT is through more and better penetration operations.
In the case of the Headley operation, there have been failures on the part of the intelligence communities of both the countries. In the US, the failure is one of effective supervision. It was an operation which has created an embarrassment for the US because the US agencies failed to factor into their tradecraft the danger of the LeT playing Headley back on the US and using him for its operations in India and the West.
One would find it difficult to accept that the US agencies were aware of the entire conspiracy relating to 26/11 through Headley, but shared the information only selectively with the Indian intelligence. The allegation that has been made in India is that the US intelligence shared with India only those portions of the intelligence which would not have endangered their penetration operation and refrained from sharing those portions which could have endangered it. Theoretically, this is possible, but really not.
The US agencies would have been anxious to protect the lives of their nationals and those of Israel and NATO countries. They would not have consciously sacrificed their lives in order to safeguard their links with Headley. Due to the poor control exercised by the US handling officers over Headley, he was more loyal to the LeT than to the US agency handling him and was not telling everything to his US handling officers.
In the case of the Indian agencies and the ministry of external affairs, the failures have been relating to the apparently inefficient scrutiny of his visa application by the Indian Consulate General in Chicago and the failure of the Indian intelligence and investigative agencies and the airport immigration to suspect even once his bona fides.
According to the FBI, after each of his five visits to India, Headley went to Pakistan to hand over to the LeT the video-recordings made by him in India. It is amazing that none of the Indian officials noticed his frequent visits between India and Pakistan and questioned him on that.
There are only two ways of explaining this:
Either, the Indian immigration at the airport was negligent in the scrutiny of his passport; or he was using two passports -- his old pre-2006 passport as Gilani for his travels to Pakistan and his new passport as Headley for his travels to India;
Or, the Inter Services Intelligence was helping the LeT by allowing him to enter and exit from Pakistan without any entry in his passport.
The present misunderstanding between the intelligence professionals of the two countries has arisen from the alleged reluctance of the FBI to give independent access to Headley to Indian investigators for interrogation and from the feeling right or wrong that that the FBI has not been as forthcoming as it ought to have been and has not shared with the Indian investigators all the information that needed to be shared.
Continued breast-beating by the Indian professionals about the perceived reluctance of the FBI to co-operate fully is not going to help matters. There are two aspects to the L-affaire Headley. The first relates to the reconstruction of the 26/11 attacks. The second relates to the prevention of future attacks.
Indian and US professionals must remember that Headley may be only the tip of the LeT iceberg in the US as well as India. It is in the common interest of the two countries to identify his network of contacts and sleeper cells, if any, in the two countries. It is significant and worrying that neither the FBI in the US nor the Central Investigation Agency in India has so far been able to identify and arrest any other contact of Headley in their respective countries except Rana of Chicago.
This gives rise to a strong suspicion that while he has been talking freely to the FBI about the past, he has not been forthcoming about the future and about the identities of LeT cells in the US and India, which could organise future attacks.
This is an area where the intelligence professionals of the two countries can and ought to co-operate despite the Indian unhappiness about the past. The Indian unhappiness about the past is legitimate and understandable, but this should not be allowed to come in the way of joint efforts to prevent future attacks.