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Madhuri case: Making an ass of ourselves

April 29, 2010 11:16 IST

The government and our officers who have been talking to the media do not realise the importance of keeping the Pakistani intelligence guessing as to what Madhuri Gupta has been telling her interrogators. As for the media, it has converted the case into a slapstick serial, writes security expert B Raman

1991: Liviu Radu, a Romanian diplomat posted in New Delhi, was kidnapped by some Khalistani terrorists. He got released as a result of an operation mounted by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). A Western intelligence agency co-operated in the operation. A senior External Affairs ministry official told the media about the identity of the Western agency. It was prominently carried by some sections of the media. The Western country concerned through its embassy in New Delhi strongly protested against the failure of the MEA officer to protect the identity of its agency.

1993: After the March 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) secretly sent a team of its explosive experts to Mumbai to help investigators of the Mumbai Police. They were put up in a Mumbai hotel under non-official cover. The team leader team was surprised to receive a phone call from a journalist of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) then posted in New Delhi, who was aware of their FBI identity. Enquiries revealed that a senior Mumbai Police officer had told the journalist about their FBI identity and revealed to him the name of the hotel where they were staying. There was a strong protest from the FBI over the indiscretion of the police officer.

2010: Madhuri Gupta, a Second Secretary working in the Press and Information wing of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, was arrested on a charge of working for the Pakistani intelligence. While reporting on her arrest and interrogation, sections of the media named another officer of the High Commission and claimed that he was from the Indian intelligence. According to a report carried by a national daily, an MEA officer mentioned this to the journalists.

It is important to protect the identity of serving intelligence officers posted abroad for three reasons. Firstly, the exposure of his identity will make it impossible for him to perform his intelligence tasks in future. Secondly, it could pose a serious threat to his life from terrorists. And, thirdly, it could create operational problems.

In the 1970s, the revelation of the identity of a serving Central Intelligence Agency officer posted in Europe led to his assassination by some terrorists. The Congress passed a law making it a criminal offence for anyone to reveal the identity of a serving intelligence officer.

Since then, American officials and media take care not to reveal the identity of a serving intelligence officer even if they come to know of it. Dick Cheney, Vice-President under George Bush, came under severe criticism for asking one of his aides to brief a journalist about the identity of a serving woman CIA officer. Cheney's aide had to face an enquiry for carrying out Cheney's request, which amounted to a crime.

In other countries too, officials as well as the media take great care to protect the identity of serving intelligence officers posted in foreign countries. In Israel, as in the US, it is a crime to reveal the identity of a serving intelligence officer.

In India, we have neither laws nor traditions to protect the identities of serving intelligence officers posted abroad. During the last five years, Indian media has exposed the identities of at least a dozen serving external intelligence officers posted abroad, thereby damaging their utility as intelligence officers and exposing them to likely physical threats from terrorists.

This is highly unwise on the part of the journalists. But how can we blame them when other government officers, who do not realise the importance of protecting the cover and security of intelligence officers serving abroad, tip them off. There could be strong opposition from the Indian media to the government enacting a law similar to the US law to protect the identity of intelligence officers serving abroad, but it should at least ensure that such leakages and disclosures do not take place from the officials of the government.

The case of Madhuri Gupta has been handled in an unprofessional manner, with almost a leak an hour. If some of these leaks are to be believed, she must be the greatest intelligence agent ever produced in the history of espionage from a diplomatic mission comparable to the
legendary Cicero, a Nazi agent in the British Embassy in Ankara.

If our news channels are to be believed, what all she has done: Exposed the identities of Indian agents in Pakistan; exposed the identities of Indian agents in other countries; gave to the Pakistani intelligence copies of classified documents, including what is described as the classified minutes of the Prime Minister's Office on India's relations with Pakistan etc etc. If he was alive, Cicero's handling officer would have envied her handling officer in the Pakistani intelligence.

There are at least a dozen journalists claiming exclusive access to the results of the interrogation and yet reporting the same unbelievable stories in almost the same language. These dozen journalists are also claiming exclusive access to the interrogation reports. Some of them have even been giving what they claim are quotes from the interrogation reports. I know how interrogation reports are recorded. They are not done the way they are shown on some of our TV channels.

Who is Madhuri Gupta? What is her background? She is an Urdu translator posted in Islamabad to monitor the Urdu media. The Press and Information wing, in which she was working, deals only with open information and handles the Pakistani media. It is not a wing of the mission that has access to classified documents. It is the cut and paste from the media wing. And yet our media has been reporting that classified reports passed through her hands. She was not even the head of the wing, but one among the staff.

I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I saw an anchor criticising Pakistan for not co-operating with India in the case investigation. What does he expect Pakistan to do? Admit that she was their agent and tell us the details of what she did for the Pakistani intelligence? The world will be laughing at the kind of reporting that has been going on on our TV channels.

The print media used to be more responsible in reporting. Senior sub-editors used to exercise some check over the exuberance of the reporters and carefully vet their stories before accepting them. Now, even print media journalists are competing with their TV colleagues in being more and more sensational. What is important is not whether one is correct and believable, but whether one's story is sufficiently sensational -- the more sensational, the better.

Truth, reliability, balance and restraint in reporting have been the victims of the 'breaking news' culture in our TV media. Madhuri Gupta's case is a serious breach of our national security. Even if she had not revealed any classified information to the Pakistani intelligence, the very fact that the Pakistani intelligence succeeded in recruiting her speaks poorly of our counter-intelligence controls.

The case deserves to be investigated and analysed in a serious manner on the basis of established facts. Instead, it has been converted into a slapstick serial, which will go on until another equally attention-catching serial replaces it.

The government and our officers who have been talking to the media do not realise the importance of keeping the Pakistani intelligence guessing as to what she has been telling her interrogators. Intelligence agencies worth their salt keep their adversary guessing when they identify and arrest one of its agents.

When the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, shot down and arrested Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot of the CIA, for quite some time they did not reveal that they had caught him alive. They made an ass of the CIA and then President Dwight Eisenhower by keeping them guessing as to what happened to Powers.

Instead of making an ass of the Pakistani intelligence by keeping it guessing as to what happened to Madhuri Gupta, our intelligence agencies, the MHA and the MEA are making an ass of themselves by vying with one another in leaking out to the media all sorts of stories after revealing prematurely information about her arrest.

The writer is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies
B Raman