If, like me, your understanding of the undercover world of sleuths is drawn essentially from bulk viewing of the British drama Spooks or childhood memories of glamorous James Bond flicks, then, perhaps, you are as confused as I am over whether spies should be allowed to go public with tales from a secret past.
When Major General VK Singh was raided by the CBI for writing a book on his years in the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), my instinctive reaction was that of liberal disdain. It seemed to me a blatant example of official paranoia and witch-hunting that had not been condemned strongly enough by us. But what followed was a long and ferocious argument with a close friend, who made me concede that at least a part of my reaction smacked of intellectual naiveté.
After all, he pointed out, secrecy was the operational principle of intelligence agencies the world over. And while it was easy to brandish India as a country of intolerance, how could I forget that even the West was replete with examples of similar controversies?
There was Philip Agee who revealed the names of dozens of CIA operatives in their London station in Inside the Company. After several pleas from the American government and an MI6 report that blamed Agee’s indiscretion for the death of two spies in Poland, he was eventually deported from Britain, amid a storm of Left-wing protests. (Agee, who wrote three more books on the CIA, excerpts of which appeared in Playboy, now divides his time between Germany and Cuba, where he helps American travellers sneak into Castro’s idyllic empire.)
Then the British government ensured that Peter Wright’s Spycatcher became a global bestseller, when it spent three unsuccessful years and £ 2 million trying to stop it from being published. Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights found the British government guilty of breaching international conventions for trying to gag newspapers that had printed reviews and excerpts of Wright’s book.
Most recently, in the US, when Valerie Plame, wife of a former American diplomat, was outed as a CIA operative, it erupted into a full-blown national controversy. A New York Times reporter went to jail, a senior government aide had to resign and domestic laws were amended to make sure that there was more stringent punishment for those who blew the cover of their colleagues.
So although for most of us, spies are the stuff of delicious fiction, the brutal fact is that spooks by definition actually inhabit a shadowy, secret world ruled by the cloak and the dagger.
Our objection then to the crackdown on V.K Singh’s book cannot be based on the absolute principles that define an ‘open’ society — such ideals are antithetical to the very business of being a spy. Instead, we must debate on whether the government action against Singh was based on legitimate concerns or was it merely muscle-flexing and a gross misuse of the Official Secrets Act? In other words, we can accept that all intelligence agencies, everywhere in the world, are paranoid about secrecy. But where exactly does secrecy end and a government cover-up begin?
Books like the Spycatcher created such a stir because they made several dramatic allegations, including the startling suggestion that the MI5 and the CIA had joined hands against British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. In comparison, Singh’s book is an acute, but mostly administrative, look at how the R&AW is run and (mis)managed. It calls for an “increase in accountability of our top intelligence agencies, since the Indian taxpayer has the right to know how his money is spent.”
Who can argue with that? The book spends some time critiquing how Ravinder Singh, the CIA’s mole in the R&AW, was able to get away because of sloppy management and the functional rot within. Whether you agree with him or not, neither the information nor the criticism is new — it was widely reported in India’s mainstream media. The retired General does make a provocative argument in questioning the government’s decision to go public with the Kargil tapes — intercepted telephone conversations between Pakistan’s then army chief, Pervez Musharraf, and his trusted aide Mohammed Aziz Khan.
While many military analysts believe the tapes were a turning point in the war and were especially useful in lobbying for American intervention, VK Singh argues otherwise. He labels it a serious tactical blunder that could have jeopardised any future attempts at international intelligence gathering of this kind. But once again, agree with him or not, talking about the tapes can hardly fall into the domain of a secret that is too dangerous to expose. The book cites other instances of corruption — equipment purchased at inflated rates, R&AW stations that remained inexplicably closed and SPG communication sets that were bought despite security objections.
Some of the sloth, he argues, has set in because the premier agency is vastly over-staffed; there are 20-odd joint secretaries in the Delhi office itself. The criticism may make VK Singh’s former bosses prickly, but which part of his book is so damaging to ‘national security’ that it justified treating a senior army officer with 37 years of standing like a petty criminal? Is the mere questioning of how the R&AW is, or should be, run enough to be treated as an act of blasphemy? No wonder VK Singh demanded to know whether the CBI had even bothered to read his book before it came knocking on his door.
Moreover, why has VK Singh been singled out for punishment? After all, a slew of recent books by former spies — including one by security analyst B Raman that accuses Rajiv Gandhi of covering up the Bofors probe — have been allowed into the public domain without fuss or fury. Could it be because VK Singh was never an ‘insider’ in the agency but a military officer on deputation? Is this just petty bureaucratic politics playing itself out?
In an age when the right to information has been touted as one of modern India’s most progressive achievements, surely the anachronistic Official Secrets Act deserves a revamp? The CIA may still vet every book written by one of its own, but American law has now institutionalised the declassifying of secret documents after a defined passage of time, and the agency is accountable to a joint intelligence committee. If a senior officer of the Indian army demands to know who the R&AW is answerable to, does that make him a traitor? Or does that just make us incurably intolerant? Has secrecy become an excuse for failure?
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7