The spy next door

I had never met a member of the ISI and I wasn't going to allow this opportunity to pass me by, writes Anirudh Bhattacharyya.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2011 23:11 IST

An article in last weekend’s New York Times reminded me of an extraordinary encounter two years ago.

I had received an email that read like it might have been sent by a pre-adolescent Bieberhead. “Please save me in your fav list,” it said. It ended somewhat plaintively, “Please reply me once you receive.”

I follow email etiquette, responding to the majority of messages I receive as promptly as I can. The exceptions tend to be emails from benevolent Nigerians promising me apes, ivory and peacocks or Chinese manufacturers peddling shafting machines. The sender of the email I mentioned earlier was another exception.

That email had been preceded by a curious rendezvous a day earlier at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

In September each year, this hotel tends to become Pakistan Central. As the UN General Assembly meets, the Pakistan government almost always elects to house its officials and media centre at the Roosevelt.

That month, in 2009, I received a call on my cellphone. The caller introduced himself as Muhammad Tasleem Sharif, a media attaché at the Pakistani Consulate in New York.

I asked him the obvious question: how had he secured my cell number? From a ‘database’ of Indian journalists, was his response. He complained about how incompetent Pakistani journalists were and how they never provided him with any useful information. Which was why, he explained, he had turned to Indian mediapersons in New York.

I figured where the conversation was headed, and which species of spook Tasleem belonged to, and agreed to meet him at the Roosevelt, where he said he was “on duty”.

I had never met a member of Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), at least not knowingly, and I wasn’t going to allow this opportunity to pass me by.

Tasleem was waiting for me in the lobby. He didn’t appear impressive for a spy. He was short, squat and wore a suit jacket that was not only large enough to accommodate two Tasleems.

As we seated ourselves on the plush couches provided by the hotel, he started his pitch. He was offering me stories, exclusives with Pakistani officials visiting the US. He grinned broadly as he outlined one particularly juicy item, according to him: “I’ll tell you what our president does in the evenings, he has a liking for massage parlours.”

In exchange, he only wanted, so he said, information on the schedules of Indian ministers visiting America.

My curiosity about meeting an ISI operative had been satisfied and I didn’t want to prolong our meeting any further.

I excused myself and told him I wasn’t interested. As I headed out towards Grand Central Station to take the subway back home, I noticed I had acquired an additional shadow. Tasleem the Persistent was now making financial offers: “We will pay what you want, in cheque or cash, here or India, whatever you want. Rupees, dollars, pounds.”

I politely declined his offers but as I entered the subway, I found Tasleem next to me. I was alarmed, that he was going to invite himself over for dinner and a sleepover.

However, probably due to the packed carriage at rush hour, he said little, other than to invite me to the Pakistani consulate. “You should come and visit me. We are close to the Indian consulate,” he said. He seemed like a teenager desperately seeking a date. I grunted and was relieved when he exited the train a couple of stops before mine.

On July 23, the New York Times reported that Mohammad Tasleem, an attaché at the Pakistani consulate in New York and an ISI agent, “had been posing as an FBI agent” and targeting the Pakistani diaspora. I wondered if he had failed in his task of recruiting Indian journalists and had been given another portfolio or whether he was just a great multitasker.

Tasleem was “spirited out of the United States” in April 2011, according to the report. I wondered how representative Tasleem was of ISI’s ranks, especially given its deadly reputation. Or are they just really, really good at deception?

And by the way, I had indeed saved Tasleem’s email, but not in my “fav list”.

( Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years )

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 29, 2011 23:09 IST