Revealed: How CIA tried to gather intel before 1971 India-Pakistan war
At 9:29 am on November 24, 1971, Henry Kissinger, the US National Security Advisor, convened a tense and confidential meeting of the Washington Special Action Group (WSAG) in the White House Situation Room. The WSAG, consisting of the US top brass, had come together to discuss the escalating conflict in the Indian subcontinent after India crossed into the erstwhile East Pakistan to join the New Delhi-backed Mukti Bahini rebel group.
“Why do we have no independent intelligence?” Kissinger had to ask the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as lack of intelligence was stonewalling his diplomatic options.
Contrary to the popular perception of the famed capabilities of the US spy agency, the CIA, or “Langley” as the agency is referred in the diplomatic and spy world after the location of its headquarters, had little intelligence or an accurate assessment of a crisis the American leadership was deeply interested in.
A study of the declassified CIA papers by Hindustan Times reveals that the 1971 war remains the single most important episode of interest for Langley. These documents, posted online on January 17, were declassified after the mandatory 25-year period, but this is the first time the CIA has put more than 12 million documents on its website.
The intelligence briefings, memoranda, minutes of meetings and transcripts of conversations are a treasure trove of information on how keenly the US wanted to avoid a crisis in the subcontinent, which it thought would increase the influence of the erstwhile USSR in the region.
The documents reveal that the US was even willing to work with the USSR and its new-found friend China. However, months of preparation by a high level team led by Kissinger, who intensely disliked then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, could not take preemptive diplomatic action in the absence of credible intelligence.
On November 24, inside the Situation Room at the White House, Kissinger was evidently frustrated with the CIA. “Why can’t we find out more?” he asked. The previous day, the situation in the subcontinent rapidly deteriorated after Indian troops crossed the eastern border and Pakistan declaring a state of emergency in preparation for war. India neither confirmed nor denied crossing the border at that point in time.
An option before the WSAG was to approach the United Nations, but the US did not have enough information. “The question is what hard data we have to support whatever action we want to take. We have no doubt that India is involved and that they are probably across the border. But we need something to nail down the exact nature of their activities and we need it in a day or two,” Kissinger said.
“So our situation is that we don’t know enough now to do anything, and by the time they are in Dhaka, it will be too late to do anything. In these circumstances, we should move early rather than later, since if we are late, any move we make will be ineffectual. This is our dilemma,” he added.
Kalyani Shanker, senior journalist and the author of Nixon, Indira and India – Politics and Beyond, said, “The myth that the CIA knew everything is not true. They knew something and something they did not know. For sure they did not know about the timing of the 1971 war. Both (President Richard) Nixon and Kissinger were taken aback when the war broke out in December.”
Records of another WSAG meeting provide an insight into the CIA’s thinking and how it was far from the reality. On August 17, 1971, Kissinger asked then CIA chief Richard Helms, “Do you think Indians will attack?” He replied in the negative. “My personal feeling is that they will not do so.”
By this time, India had nearly completed its preparations for war, which started on March 26, 1971.
The 1971 war was an important event even in the politics in Washington. A piece by syndicated columnist Jack Anderson detailing Nixon’s covert “tilt” towards Pakistan in the 1971 war started a probe into internal espionage, which would later come to be known as the Moorer-Radford affair.
Late Admiral Thomas H Moorer was the then Joint Chiefs of Staff and he used Navy Yeoman Charles Radford to spy on the White House.