Escape to Nowhere: A Riveting Narrative of the Rabinder Singh Saga
Though the story outline is well known, I found the narrative to be riveting. Like other books written by bureaucrats that I have so far read, it is told in very simple and straight language, gets right down to the heart of the matter without wasting much effort in prolonged introductions and stays the course without too many distractions. Except in the very technical sense, this is not really fiction; certainly, as the author has himself noted in an interview, most if not all of it rings true and exactly as it happened with only a few exceptions such as those that B.Raman has noted. While I am no expert, my feeling is that the author has provided a candid account of the events even if his assessment of the various people involved may be debated. For the rest of this review, I will use what are thought to be the real names of the characters in the book.
The entire episode began when a junior officer met the head of the research and analysis wing’s (RAW) head of the Counter-espionage Unit (CEU) to convey his worries about Rabinder Singh, senior analyst of RAW’s Far East Asia branch. It was alleged that he was calling too many people from other branches trying to elicit confidential information from them regarding matters he had no business to inquire about in the first place. We learn that while possibly against the rules, this kind of cross-desk interaction was however not very uncommon and hence that ipso facto did not amount to a red flag. Despite some misgivings at the top that this might be a wild goose chase, a surveillance was initiated to find out whether he or his wife was meeting any foreign handler.
When nothing showed up beyond a preference for high end hotels (notwithstanding a record of financial difficulties earlier), despite some pressure to wind it up, at the insistence of the author who headed the Unit, surveillance was extended to the suspect’s office whence he was found to be copying material he received from others. Thereafter the effort was intensified and the story goes into detail about the various further measures taken to bug his office, home, telephone and car.
Fruits of these labors yielded several pieces which all seemed to fit together: (1) he was obtaining classified documents from various senior officials under various pretexts, photocopying classified documents and taking them home (2) his wealth was disproportionate to his known sources of income and he was eager to indulge officers with expensive lunches, dinners and parties (3) he had purchased an expensive laptop at a foreign location for which he had not submitted a receipt to be reimbursed. All of this was obtained relatively early on. The trouble was that each of these was also capable of a more innocuous explanation.
Apparently, senior officers are at liberty to take home classified documents (even juniors too with permission from their seniors but there is little real check to find out if such permission has actually been obtained), so the fact that he was taking photocopies rather than the originals, while unusual, does not by itself amount to much – a security lapse at best. The excessive wealth might be an indication of corruption at the worst but still a far cry from treason. The last again may simply be attributed to his lack of concern about the computer’s cost. The clinching evidence, i.e. of him actually handing over any of this material to a foreign agent or even of his obtaining remuneration from a foreign source was missing, a difficulty that caused the investigation to drag on inconclusively.
Differences sharpened over how to proceed and led to some erosion of trust at this point. The three key people – the author Amar Bhushan who headed the CEU, the agency chief (thought to be C.D.Sahay) and the principal secretary to the Prime Minister (presumably Brajesh Mishra) to whom he reported – had different concerns and perspectives.
For Bhushan, while nailing the suspect mattered, it was of greater importance to unearth the network and determine the modus operandi of the foreign agency that he worked for. In his view, the latter would be useful to identify the weaknesses in the agency’s own operating procedure so that future instances could be prevented or at least ensure that they showed up on the radar if/when they occured.
For Sahay, the main concern was protecting the agency from the adverse fallout of this saga. He pushed for one of several alternatives: (1) if the evidence was sufficient, the matter be brought to a quick end either by filing an FIR and handing the case over to the CBI. Even if it was inconclusive at this time, search and interrogation could fill in the missing links (2) if the evidence was thought to be inadequate, the suspect could be dismissed under article 311(2)(c) of the constitution (as eventually happened once the suspect fled the country) (3) if the investigation needed to be continued, he was open to bringing in the intelligence bureau (IB) which is technically the main organization responsible for domestic counter-espionage and supposedly has more manpower and superior technology.
Bhushan thought the first was premature because terminating the investigation at this stage may (or may not) definitively implicate the suspect but most importantly, it would foreclose any prospect of identifying the manner of his contact with his handler. As the material being divulged was not of high value, cutting the agency’s loss need not be the preeminent priority. The second led to the same outcome except it was worse in the respect that the suspect would effectively get away without being charged for his crime. The third was rejected because of longstanding interagency conflict – he felt the IB never missed an opportunity to run down the agency and would do again if given the chance.
The two of them repeatedly clashed over this but the author mostly had his way with the Chief not pushing hard enough to have his view adopted. The third was the PM’s principal secretary who was also the Minister in charge of the agency. His main concern was to build Indo-US strategic cooperation and wanted nothing to rock the boat. His priority therefore was that this irritant ought to disappear forthwith – if a departmental inquiry leading to dismissal achieved that, it was good enough. Another ominous possibility is also hinted – if it meant simply ending the inquiry and doing nothing more about it, he was probably game for that too. At one stage, he even ordered the inquiry to be terminated and all evidence handed over to him to review but it was not carried out (further instructions amounted to its implicit rescindment).
Another complication was agency gossip by officers who were not in the loop about the CEU’s actions. The suspect started to hear frequently from ‘friends’ in other desks that CEU was conducting surveillance of a senior officer and that it could probably be him. The increased stress precipitated matters sooner than expected. The author hoped that this stress would lead him to contact his handler thus providing them conclusive evidence of guilt. This did happen but with a twist – believing that the game was almost up, the suspect managed to slip away at night with his wife and reach Nepal in a friend’s car. There, as the agency found out soon after, the CIA’s Nepal station chief had arranged for their accommodation and departure to the US under new names (and passports). Subsequent protestations of the government of India came to nought – as expected, the US refuses to acknowledge anything, even their existence. According to the author, the couple lives in Florida, has applied for asylum and proceedings are still on.
When Rabinder Singh’s computer was seized and analyzed, ~23,100 files were found to have left their imprint on the hard disc. Document images appeared to have been transferred through a secure file transfer protocol. All of this raises one fundamental question for the reader: if a suspect was taking home documents and not physically meeting his handler, one would think that the internet would have been the most obvious route to have accomplished their transfer and focus on intercepting it as part of the investigation would have been a priority.
Remarkably enough, the book is silent on this except for a few details of his likely method mentioned in the epilogue. Since it is quite inconceivable that the possibility was not considered, the only explanation I can come up with is that the author has chosen to leave it out for security reasons. That leads to the big question: Should the options Sahay advocated have been taken instead? In hindsight, the answer could well be in the affirmative. But given what was realized then, it is harder to say. Without knowing more about what was gleaned about Singh’s online activity, it is difficult to judge the merit of either Bhushan’s skepticism or Sahay’s relatively greater confidence about the strength of the agency’s case against him.
A final word about the larger issues that ought to be debated. The book suggests that information security is quite lax at the agency. This is not just about the rules but also its organizational culture. Secondly, the author believes the benefits of proximity to western intelligence agencies in the name of international cooperation are only marginal and outweighed by the serious problem of penetration which is far more detrimental to our security. He strongly favors cutting back on it, a view that appears to have been accepted by the top brass in recent times according to news reports. A third issue is whether evidentiary requirements ought to be more lenient for espionage cases. Fourthly, inter-agency conflict ought not to be a justification to dispense with a joint endeavor when it is otherwise desirable. Such conflicts are frequent and inevitable every where but managing them better ought to concern government leaders.
Finally, allowing institutions to be penetrated or their integrity to be otherwise undermined should be unacceptable irrespective of political considerations. Overlooking real harm for a photo-op with a foreign dignitary is tantamount to abuse of authority and those who do so ought to be held to account.