Former RAW officer tells the complete story of the double agent who got away
Ritu Sarin Posted online: Sun Jul 15 2012, 03:04 hrs
New Delhi : “Ravi Mohan and (wife) Vijita landed at Dulles International Airport (Washington) at 3.40 am. As they came out of the aircraft, they were received by a man who introduced himself as Patrick Burns. He whisked them away, bypassing immigration and Customs and took them to a secluded house in the heart of Maryland woods… the fugitives stayed incognito, while documents were being arranged to permanently wipe out their real identity. Three weeks later, Ravi and Vijita were set free to live their American dream as fake individuals, burdened to carry the sin of betraying their nation for the rest of their lives….”
The passage appears in the epilogue of a yet-to-be released spy story titled Escape to No-where. But it’s the blurb ‘Inspired by a true story’ on the cover and the name of the author that sets this work of fiction apart.
For, the writer is Amar Bhushan, a former special secretary of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). Bhushan was the head of the agency’s counter-intelligence unit till he retired in 2005, and has now cleverly masked identities to reveal what’s the unmistakable story of the detection and escape of Rabinder Singh — the former Army major who was discovered to be a CIA mole.
Every name and several locations have been changed, but the narration of events — from Day 1, when Jeevnathan (the head of the Security Division of the Agency) is informed by a whistleblower that the “behaviour” of “Ravi Mohan” was suspicious, to Day 96 when the agency’s source in Kathmandu confirms the escape of the “suspect” with the help of the CIA Station Chief from there — is a fascinating account of the manner in which RAW’s security unit mounted an over three-month-long surveillance and then, for want of clinching evidence on who his handlers were, allowed Ravi (read Rabinder Singh) a window to escape.
Singh had been serving as a joint secretary in RAW when he fled to the US.
The surveillance drill that the RAW’s security unit put the suspected spy through included tapping his telephone lines, fixing surveillance cameras in his office (in the AC ducts), and listening devices in the official car and residence (codenamed ‘Alister’). Teams of watchers monitored his movements, contacts and flamboyant spending habits.
The RAW even planted an operative at the gym where ‘Ravi’ would work out in the evening, writes Bhushan. When video footage showed him making photocopies of secret reports daily in his office to carry home, it was replaced with a sophisticated machine that allowed officers to get copies of every document that had been xeroxed.
It was in mid-2004, says the book (by Konark Publishers), that ‘Ravi’s’ peon was intercepted transferring 13 files to his car. Bhushan writes that the files were seized and to ensure that he didn’t get suspicious, RAW conducted a search of each and every employee as they exited the high-security headquarters. The yield was a huge cache of secret documents (restricted from being taken home), DVDs and CDs as well as pornographic material.
This was also the turning point, Bhushan writes, with ‘Ravi’ getting a hint that he may have been caught and beginning to plot his escape. The RAW chief, who was getting daily briefings, however, decided not to involve the “Bureau (Intelligence Bureau)” in laying the final trap and at one point almost called the surveillance off, writes the ex-RAW officer.
Most revealing are the sections apparently inspired by Rabinder Singh’s “escape” to the US via Kathmandu. In the book, Ravi and his wife’s US passports have been issued by the “Authority”.
Six weeks after ‘Ravi’s’ escape — even as the issue was being taken up by the RAW chief with his American counterpart — the author describes that a certain Roben Singh applied for asylum in the US, but his plea was turned down by an immigration judge.
Writes Bhushan: “Roben Singh was none other than Ravi Mohan. The tale of his so-called misfortune is what is on record. Also, on record are scratchy details of his lost Indian passport in the name of Roben Singh, which cannot be verified by Delhi, because it was never issued. The US passport issued to him in the name of Virdi at Kathmandu does not exist anywhere. Roben currently stays as a refugee in Florida. So where would the US State Department and Interpol look for Ravi Mohan and Vijita Mohan?”
In his epilogue, Amar Bhushan also writes how Ravi “left behind misfortune for his operatives and reprieve for his collaborators”.
While the RAW faced flak for allowing the double agent to escape, the CIA Kathmandu station head was recalled from Nepal and retired compulsorily for “badly handling” ‘Ravi’s’ escape and exposing the CIA’s involvement. The CIA’s director, Operations, for South east Asia at Langley (the CIA headquarters) was also reprimanded for failing to ensure that the “Agent” was evacuated covertly, writes Bhushan.
As for the “agent’s collaborators”, says the writer, 57 employees who shared information regularly with ‘Ravi’, continue to serve RAW. While 26 of them were never asked for an explanation, 31 who actively colluded and shared extensive operational details were posted abroad.
‘For 7 years, I dithered’
In the preface, Amar Bhushan explains why he wrote the book:
“For seven years, I deliberated whether to write this story. The worry was that it might appear to be a flashback to an incident of spying that was, not too long ago, passionately commented upon by pundits on security matters and extensively glamorised by the media. There was a concern if the story could be told without violating the provisions of the Secrets Act… Then one day my dithering was put to a severe test. An officer asked me to look back at my experience of handling espionage cases and reflect whether there was any reward for persuing them doggedly. He said that he would rather have arranged for counselling for suspects to stop them from committing irregularities that hurt the reputation of the Agency than follow my prescription. I was frightened to hear the officer. Was he suggesting that subversion of officers would be tolerated and contained as a matter of policy, while a country’s secrets made their way to unauthorised hands? It was at this point that the story began its journey….”
CIA mole moved out over 120 files from office
By Praveen Swami
NEW DELHI, AUG. 2. Top officials at the Research and Analysis Wing allowed a suspected Central Intelligence Agency mole in their ranks to remove upwards of 120 files from his office just weeks before he fled the country — apparently oblivious of the fact that mole-watchers in the same organisation were attempting to nail the officer for espionage. Rabinder Singh, a senior RAW officer who is believed to have defected to the United States in May, may have used the opportunity to move classified information out of the organisation’s headquarters in New Delhi.
In April 2004, even as staff of RAW’s Counter Intelligence and Security (CIS) Division were assessing Mr. Singh’s activities as a double agent, the officer applied for permission to remove large numbers of files from lockers in his office. Mr. Singh claimed that the files contained personal records (including property papers), income tax documents, and bank statements. There was, Mr. Singh said in his application, no longer enough space to store the papers in the office. By the time Mr. Singh filed his request, RAW chief C.D. Sahay had already notified National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra of his suspicions about the officer.
With CIS Division staff processing the application in a routine manner, permission was granted for Mr. Singh to move the files to his residence. A senior RAW official said scrutiny of the files may have been cursory, given the enormous mass of paperwork involved. Interestingly, other CIS Division staff who were watching Mr. Singh’s espionage activities were simply not notified of the application. Neither, the source said, was Amar Bhushan, the RAW Special Secretary in charge of all counter-espionage and counter-intelligence work, informed of Mr. Singh’s request.
In retrospect, Mr. Singh’s request should have set off alarms in RAW’s counter-intelligence setup. Officers in RAW — as in other security and intelligence organisations — often apply for permission to move personal files from their offices to their homes. Such requests are generally made when an officer is being posted to another city or on the verge of retirement. Mr. Singh, however, had no evident reason to clear his cupboards. Then the sheer volume of files he asked to move made careful scrutiny of their contents extremely difficult.
As things stand, investigations into the case seem to have reached something of a dead end. Indian intelligence has established that Mr. Singh flew out of Kathmandu on May 4, shortly after he went on leave. However, nothing has so far been learnt of his final destination. Sources told The Hindu that Mr. Singh used his own passport to travel out of Nepal, a discovery which contradicts earlier reports suggesting he used a false travel document issued by the U.S. RAW has yet to explain why Mr. Singh’s passport was not confiscated when it became clear the espionage charges against him were credible.
RAW’s handling of the affair has sparked off a major succession battle. Mr. Sahay is due to retire at the end of 2004, and some have been calling for an outsider to be drafted in to bring about wide-ranging reforms in the beleaguered organisation. One candidate is R. Narasimhan, the second-most senior officer in the Intelligence Bureau, who recently lost a battle to take charge of the internal intelligence organisation to Ajit Doval. Should efforts to bring in Mr. Narasimhan succeed, he would bypass two Special Secretaries, Mr. Bhushan and Jyoti Sinha.
Seeking to protect their flanks, top officials at RAW have been arguing that the failure was the outcome of indecision at the highest levels of the National Democratic Alliance Government. RAW officials say that Mr. Mishra was briefed on the issue but only ordered the termination of Mr. Singh’s services on May 14, well after he had fled the country. Furthermore, the organisation claims, Mr. Mishra’s orders were subject to approval by the new United Progressive Alliance Government. One possible explanation offered by intelligence insiders is that the NDA Government wished to soft-pedal the issue, fearful of an election-eve diplomatic showdown with Washington.
None of this, however, explains why RAW did not notify the Intelligence Bureau of its concerns about Mr. Singh. The I.B.’s high-specialised Special Enquiries Staff, a group of surveillance experts, is normally used to monitor the activities of both Indian nationals and diplomats believed to be engaged in hostile intelligence activities. SES personnel from the Intelligence Bureau were tasked with nailing suspects in at least two espionage scandals in the past, one involving a RAW official headquartered in Chennai, and another revolving around a top Intelligence Bureau functionary.