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The Foreign Hands

If a former security planner gets a job at a US think-tank, treat him as a CIA asset, unless you can prove otherwise, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2006 03:11 IST

I am sorry if you have  read some of this before, but anybody -- poor deluded soul -- who has been following my columns will know that I am utterly and completely fascinated by the extent to which foreign intelligence services have penetrated the Indian establishment.

I was brought up in an environment where we learnt to laugh at Indira Gandhi’s frequent invocations of the foreign hand.

We giggled when the Congress blamed everything on the CIA. We chuckled sympathetically when the late Piloo Mody came to Parliament wearing a badge which said, “I am a CIA agent.”

But now, I’m not so sure that we were right to laugh.

Should we believe that the CIA never had any interest in India? Are we to conclude that the KGB wrote us off as being of no consequence?

That does not make much sense, does it?

We have the views of contemporary sources that suggest the exact opposite.

According to the latest volume of the Mitrokhin Archive, the KGB spent a lot of money cultivating Indian sources, including those in the Congress party.

And we have contemporaneous CIA memoirs. According to Robert Baer, the former CIA agent on whose books the recent George Clooney movie Syriana is based, he spent much of his time as a CIA agent in India,

trying to recruit sources. Of course, we do not know who Baer actually recruited because his book was vetted before publication by the CIA, but we do know that the CIA ran a flourishing network in India.

We know also, from accounts of former KGB agents, that India represented an important area of interest for the former Soviet Union and that many key figures within the Indian establishment were happy to provide intelligence to their Soviet masters.

There is no doubt, for instance, that various “progressive” fronts including the Patriot newspaper and Link magazine carried whatever Moscow wanted.

My parents were trendy Lefties with communist links, so I have no difficulty in believing that the so-called ‘progressive’ lobby (a sort of Indian code phrase for fellow travellers and crypto communists) was happy to parrot whatever Moscow said -- all this in the name of global revolution.

So it is with America and the CIA.

I was brought up to believe that anybody who supports American interests in the formulation of Indian foreign policy is necessarily a CIA agent.

I am mature enough now to know that this is too absolutist a view. But equally, I remain a product of my background and so I do believe that any policy-maker who supports US interests blindly when it comes to Indian foreign policy has been compromised in some way.

And anybody from the Indian establishment -- whether he is a civil servant, a general, a politician or a journalist -- is, to my mind, a CIA asset, if he follows policies that serve US interests over ours -- unless he can prove otherwise.

In today’s climate, the CIA may want our nuclear secrets, but they also want to cultivate agents of influence who promote American interests and tell us that the way forward for India is to do what Washington wants.

All this is by way of preface to my willingness to accept Jaswant Singh’s claim in his new book that a member of Narasimha Rao’s administration was a US mole who leaked details of India’s nuclear programme to his masters in Washington.

I know that many of us will dismiss this as part of our normal anti-US hysteria. But frankly, I believe Jaswant.

First of all, if you accept that America spends billions of dollars on foreign intelligence (which the US press tells us is true) then why shouldn’t the CIA spend part of this money investigating India’s nuclear programme?

Secondly, we knew that Washington was astonishingly well-informed about what we were up to. For instance, Narasimha Rao had planned a nuclear test when the US ambassador told him to cancel it. How did Washington know?

My guess is that the Americans knew because they had a mole.

And who was that mole?

Jaswant’s book has been generally interpreted as pointing to AN Verma, Rao’s Principal Secretary. But I have my doubts. Verma was powerful and rich enough not to have to bother with selling India’s interests to Washington.

Other suspects include a science and defence advisor against whom no concrete evidence exists. Many generations of intelligence officials have always believed that this poor man was an enemy asset but he was not in office in 1993 when this leak occurred, so that should exonerate him.

But does the CIA have many agents close to the centres of power?

My view -- and I say this with all responsibility -- is an absolute yes.

India is one of the world’s most important countries. Why wouldn’t the CIA want to suborn our government?

I know for a fact that a private individual close to AB Vajpayee and to LK Advani and in a position to influence key decisions during the last BJP government was almost certainly a CIA asset and had been in the agency’s pay since the early 1960s.

Both Vajpayee and Advani had heard the rumours about this person’s involvement with the CIA but his access was unaffected.

Did he influence policy?

I find it hard to believe that Brajesh Mishra would have listened to anybody but certainly this man could have told the Americans exactly what was going on in the top echelons of government.

But why single out the BJP?

It has long been reported that the CIA had an agent in Indira Gandhi’s government who reported on the progress of the 1971 war. This claim first surfaced in Thomas Powers’ biography of CIA director Richard Helms.

It was then repeated by Henry Kissinger. Seymour Hersh spoilt things by claiming that the agent was Morarji Desai, who was not even in government in 1971.

Some years ago, when Kissinger was in India, I asked him about the story. He doubted that it was Morarji, he said.

After all, Desai wasn’t even in office in 1971, he agreed.

Fine, I said, but was there an agent?

Oh, absolutely, he said. The CIA had assured him that there was one.

And who was it?

At this, Kissinger turned coy. The CIA was under instructions not to reveal the identity of key agents to the White House, he said. But yes, there was an agent. And he had access to high levels of decision-making. Kissinger had been shown the intelligence by Helms.

I believe Kissinger. He had no reason to lie. 

I believe too that the KGB had penetrated the Indian Cabinet. You can laugh at Charan Singh’s claim, made in a letter to Morarji in 1979, that HN Bahuguna was a KGB agent.

But can you laugh at Nani Palkhivala’s claim -- also in a letter to Morarji -- that, as ambassador to Washington in 1979, he had been visited by a high US official who warned him that the CIA had discovered that the KGB was going to bring down the Janata government?

Could you still laugh, a few months later, when the Janata government fell exactly according to this schedule because such ministers as Bahuguna duly resigned?

For many years, R&AW chiefs have been obsessed with the belief that the agency has been penetrated by the CIA.

Two years ago, one relatively low-level CIA mole was discovered. But rather than arrest him, R&AW let him escape, either through ineptitude or for fear of what he might reveal.

Many R&AW officials believe that he was not the only mole. Since then, new spy scandals, most involving other CIA moles, continue to surface -- most recently in the NSC, over the last month.

So don’t laugh at claims of CIA penetration. They are probably true.

Follow my policy. If a commentator or analyst seems too pro-US on defence or security matters, watch him closely. If a former defence or security planner gets a job at a US think-tank, treat him as a CIA asset, unless you can prove otherwise.

If a journo offers undue prominence to such a person, smell a rat. If a senior civil servant is outrageously pro-US, then wonder why he should follow such a policy. (At least one former Foreign Secretary was a probable CIA agent. A former Cabinet Secretary remains a key suspect.)

And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of believing that all this talk of CIA involvement (now that the KGB and Soviet Union are both dead) is plain paranoia.

The more important we are as a nation, the more the great powers will worry about us.

We should be flattered. But we should also be careful.