By Syed Nazakat in Delhi
Copenhagen. December 7, 2009. United Nations Climate Change Conference. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh were hammering out India’s climate policy for the summit. Leader of the bloc of developing nations, India was not seeing eye-to-eye with the US. A worried White House quietly alerted CIA Director Leon E. Panetta to get cracking.
A former US Army intelligence officer and former chief of staff of president Bill Clinton, Panetta hustled top US scientists and spies to interpret all the intelligence gathered on India’s negotiating position and about individuals who were spearheading India’s climate change policy. Declassified CIA documents show that the agency had started gathering intelligence at least seven months before Copenhagen. Ahead of the summit, the CIA’s Office of the Chief Scientist ìsupported and fundedî an extensive study on “India -The impact of climate change to 2030: Geopolitical implications.”
The study suggested that the US pre-negotiate with India about the climate change issues and find a common ground outside the public and international eye. The CIA also shared its massive archives of classified environmental data with scientists. WikiLeaks confirmed America’s covert campaign to target India at Copenhagen.
All these plans are part of CIA-2015, Panetta’s grand blueprint for the CIA’s resurrection. Panetta wants the agency to recruit, train and retain a diverse workforce for more innovative deployments abroad. The immediate focus of Panetta’s shadow warriors is the Af-Pak region where they run secret facilities to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda.
But India’s growing clout has persuaded the CIA to turn the spyglass on New Delhi. The spooks in the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, are tracking virtually everything from Parliament proceedings to political parties to arms deals to internal security issues. For example, WikiLeaks leaked the cables on the cash-for-votes issue in Tamil Nadu. The sources quoted in the cable were highly-placedóKarti Chidambaram, son of Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, and M. Patturajan, former mayor of Madurai and right-hand man of Union Fertilisers Minister M.K. Alagiri.
A senior Indian intelligence officer who has been closely watching CIA-2015 confirmed the agency’s unprecedented interest in India. He said some of the CIA’s best men are secretly travelling through different states and are setting up networks to watch political developments and separatist movements. These networks will seek information about India’s nuclear arsenal and military modernisation. They will also keep their eyes peeled for terrorists who might prove dangerous to the US. Based on all this information, Langley will predict India’s strategy viz-a-viz Pakistan and China.
“The CIA is expanding its operations in India. The CIA is sending Indian-origin and south Asian-origin officers to India so that they can merge better,” said Jayadeva Ranade, former additional secretary, Research & Analysis Wing. “The basic approach [of the CIA] will be to befriend senior bureaucrats, senior military officials, politicians to find what our intentions are and what we are planning to do.” An intelligence field operative with 35 years experience, Ranade also did a stint in Washington.
The home ministry confirmed that more than 3,500 Americans are illegally overstaying in India since 2006. Neither the ministry nor the security agencies know their whereabouts. Home ministry spokesman, Onkar Kedia told THE WEEK that his office did not have details about how many illegal aliens from the US had been arrested and deported.
A senior serving intelligence officer said that the ‘missing Americans’ could be part of a ‘deep penetration itinerary’. “For example, an undercover CIA agent might be tasked to locate himself for a specific period somewhere near Mumbai or Kochi to collect some information about the movement of warships,” said the official. “Once the job is done, the agent is withdrawn.
There are instances of cooperation, too. In 1965, a covert CIA-Intelligence Bureau mission placed nuclear-powered sensors on Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot peaks to monitor China’s nuclear facilities. Captain M.S. Kohli of the Indian Navy was part of the team, thanks to his formidable mountaineering skills. He said he was never approached by the CIA after the joint mission.
Kohli said that even in the mid-sixties, the CIA was capable of deploying a team quickly and inconspicuously. “And they [CIA operatives] are unremarkable in their daily activities, such as walking to buy a newspaper in a drizzle,î said Kohli. “They know their organisation is always around them with a support and rescue plan.”
But, of course, there are instances when the CIA could not protect its own. The Memorial Wall at Langley, flanked by the CIA flag and the US flag, has 102 stars in memory of slain operatives. The CIA’s Book of Honor, a ìblack book bound with Moroccan goatskinî, lists the years of death and names of the operatives. But 40 stars are unnamed. Even the dead keep their secrets.
As the Americans pay dearly for collecting classified information, they use it primarily to defend their interests. For example, within 48 hours of the 26/11 attacks, then CIA director Michael V. Hayden contacted Hussain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador to the US, to possibly update him regarding information from India. The next day Hayden summoned ISI chief Lt-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha for a briefing.
After these two meetings, Washington started arm-twisting New Delhi to share information with Islamabad. According to a cable leaked by WikiLeaks (185722: confidential), New Delhi refused to share information with Islamabad. Washington continued arm-twisting and soon the US embassy in Delhi cabled Washington that India had agreed to share ìsome restricted information’ with Pakistan. THE CIA fixed a meeting between top intellegence officials of India and Pakistan on 26/11 in the US on July 6, 2009. It is not known for certain if the meeting was held.
The CIA has also been snooping about India’s nuclear and military facilities. India regularly figures in the CIA’s annual report on ballistic missile threats. The CIA had detected a shipment of beryllium bound for India from West Germany. As beryllium shells are used to house plutonium cores of thermonuclear devices, it was quite clear as to what India was up to.
Chief of the Army Staff General V.K. Singh told THE WEEK that adequate safety measures were taken in light of the increased activity of the western intelligence agencies. A senior Army officer said that retired officers who work for foreign defence and security companies were being closely watched as part of a counter-intelligence programme.
But the focus of the CIA is not limited to nuclear and military assets. Two chromite mines in Orissa and Karnataka and a pharmaceutical factory in Gujarat were listed among critical global infrastructure sites whose loss could ìcritically impactî the public health or security of the US. The factory manufactures chemotherapy drugs for a US firm; the list was compiled by the US State Department. Surprisingly, India’s output is only 18 per cent of the world’s annual chromite production.
The CIA has also dedicated resources in India to gather and analyse data that is freely available, like research articles, religious books and web sites. As part of this programme, the CIA allegedly commissioned a 20-state survey on Indian Muslims. Reportedly, US-based Princeton Survey Research Associates International were the main contractors. Allegedly, they sub-contracted it to TNS, a Delhi-based market research agency.
In Kerala’s capital of Thiruvananthapuram, TNS staff visited Karimadom colony, a predominantly Muslim area. The questionnaire was bizarre: Do you consider yourselves Indians first or Muslims first? Your views on imposing Islamic law in India? Do you like Osama bin Laden? Will you give him refuge if he comes to Kerala? Police nabbed four TNS staff after Karimadom residents complained.
The Kerala Muslim Jamaat Council (KMJC), the apex body of mahallu (parish) committees in southern Kerala, took strong exception to the survey. KMJC general secretary A. Pookunj said: ìMany people speak of a growing radicalisation among Kerala Muslims. But how can a foreign agency come and ask us whether we will give shelter to Osama? What do we have to do with Osama? I wonder why the state has not taken any action against them [surveyors].î TNS representative Pradeep Saxena declined to comment on the issue as it is sub judice.
Lisa Curtis, a former CIA analyst and diplomat, said that while the US shares a strategic partnership with India, the CIA’s covert operations in India have fuelled unease and mistrust within Indian intelligence agencies. Said Curtis: “The defection of a senior Indian intelligence official to the US in 2004 and revelations of unauthorised meetings between a senior Indian intelligence official and an American intelligence official in New Delhi in 1997 have raised red flags in India. [There is] concern that the US will exploit these links for its own purposes.” Curtis was referring to the defection of Rabinder Singh, joint director of RAW.
The strategic partnership between Indian agencies and the CIA is mostly restricted to counter-terrorism initiatives. “The CIA has certainly not closed its eyes to the activities of Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and other such groups,” said Robert Grenier, former director of counter-terrorism at Langley. “Since 9/11, however, there has been a clear trend toward closer cooperation and coordination between al Qaeda and other extremist groups.”
Not surprisingly, the CIA was the first to alert India about the LeT’s plot to assassinate Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. LeT cadre Shafiq Khafa and his two Indian accomplices, Hussain and Sameer, were behind the plot. The CIA also provided prior information about the attack on Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7, 2008, and about 26/11 as well.
More recently, according to a senior home ministry official, the CIA tipped off Indian agencies about Bangladeshi citizen Mohammad Shah Jalal, a forger who sneaked people into various countries. Jalal’s cell phone, 9540288157, was put on surveillance, leading to his arrest on August 23, 2010 from north Delhi. The police recovered fake ID cards of Nepal, Bangladesh and India, and two Indian passportsóG6904616 in the name of Nirmal Singh and G6542237 in the name of Harjeet Singh.
For all the bonhomie between agencies, mention the name Omar Sheikh and everyone clams up and you will be shown the door. On January 22, 2002, two motorcycle-borne terrorists attacked the American Centre in Kolkata, a favourite base of the CIA. The attack was masterminded by Omar Sheikh, a UK-born militant of Pakistani descent, who had links to al Qaeda. He was one of the militants released in 1999 to save the lives of the passengers on board the hijacked IC-814 flight.
But no one really knows who Omar Sheikh is. And those in the know will not speak. An FIR, No 658/94, at Connaught Place police station is still open and he is now is prison in Pakistan. In his memoirs, former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf called him an MI6 agent. Many in Afghanistan believe Omar was a CIA agent.
A tribal leader in Kandahar told THE WEEK that Omar visited Kandahar and Paktia provinces in mid-1990s where Kashmiris, Afghans and Arabs were trained together by the ISI. “We always believed that he is close to the CIA,” said the tribal leader. The CIA and the FBI nabbed Fahim Ansari, another suspect in the Kolkata attack, from Dubai. Ansari was eventually handed over to India, but the agency stills remains mum on Omar.
Every relationship has its ups and downs. If India has benefited from its partnership with the CIA, what are we complaining about? M.K. Dhar, former joint director, Intelligence Bureau, puts it crisply: “The CIA has legitimate interests in India. But our problem with the CIA has been that it has targeted the sensitive segments of Indian panorama.”
He recalled how the CIA had developed a mole inside prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s office in 1993. “The plot was exposed when we noticed a peon from the PMO frequently visiting a photostat shop in Khan Market in Delhi. He was smuggling files from the PMO.” The peon was arrested and his American handler was asked to leave the country. The court closed the case last year.
Many within India’s intelligence establishment say that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has prompted the CIA to look closely at India. In 2010, a suicide bomber killed eight CIA officers in Khost, eastern Afghanistan. The worsening situation is making it difficult for the agency to freely move around and meet its agents in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, New Delhi could be the new debriefing centre.
Robert Grenier insists that the CIA’s covert operations are subject to layers of oversight. He said that before an agency paramilitary team can be launched, the President must sign an intelligence finding that broadly outlines the operation to be performed. “That finding, along with a more detailed description of the mission, is sent to the congressional intelligence committees. If they object to an operation, they can cut off its funds the next time the agency’s budget comes up,” said Robert Grenier. After approving a covert operation, President Obama leaves the details of when and how to Leon Panetta. After all, according to the US Constitution, he is the real boss of the agency. In theory, the CIA Director’s mission is to tell the president the truth, so as to provide the president with a basis for making important decisions.
Leon Panetta, amiable and widely respected within the Obama administration, who choose India as his first foreign destination after he took over as the director of the CIA in 2009, knows that India is a strategic ally, a relationship President Osama cherishes. That makes his job more challenging to confirm his country’s hopes and fears about an emerging and in many ways an unpredictable power like India. “In the spying business you don’t operative just to harm other. You want to confirm and establishment things to help your political establishment to make better decisions,” explain Jayadeva Ranade, as he ran his hand across his hair. “But one thing is clear if the President tells the CIA to take care of a mission or of a country. They wouldn’t care less about the consequences.
The CIA has run covert operations in India for a long time. The agency is focused on:
The government’s function and decision-making have been on constant watch of the CIA. There was allegedly one CIA mole in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, and 15 officials in the PMO were arrested in 1985 for allegedly working for the CIA. Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her children are the new centre of attraction.
India’s intelligence agencies
Both RAW and the Intelligence Bureau were penetrated by the CIA. The IB’s senior officer K.V. Unnikrishnan and its special director Rattan Sehgal were sacked after they were found working for the CIA.
The agency describes Kashmir as “a disputed region”, and it is reported that many CIA officers travel to Kashmir as US diplomats to meet the separatist leaders.
Nuclear and military facilities
India’s nuclear and military facilities and arsenal have remained the main CIA targets. India continuously figures in the annual report of the CIA titled Ballistic Missile Threat Through 2015.
The agency has dedicated resources in India to gather and analyse various forms of data like research articles, religious books, websites and even phone books. It also monitors the public opinion and beliefs, particularly of Muslims.
As a terrorist outfit, LeT has become a growing preoccupation of the US. The CIA has provided India prior intelligence about some of the terrorist attacks like 26/11.
Critical national assets
The CIA is also focused on assets like two little known chromite mines in Orissa and Karnataka, besides a factory, which manufactures chemotherapy drugs in Gujarat.
CIA supplied weapons and money and trained Tibetans in guerrilla warfare in Colorado to fight China’s occupation. In his autobiography, the Dalai Lama wrote that the CIA agreed to help Tibetans, “as part of their worldwide efforts to destabilise all Communist governments”.
Owing to the security risks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Delhi in neighbouring India has become a new meeting place for the CIA agents and operatives.
(March 27 2011, THE WEEK)