Pen drive panic

The looser the bureaucracy the more it is likely to leak

Other than the forum they used as cover, that the United States remains committed to spying on India’s security establishment should come as no surprise to anyone, not least those involved in counter-intelligence. In the trade, both friends and foes are legitimate targets of espionage. What differentiates friends from foes, though, is the amount of ruckus that follows the unearthing of a spy. Friendly countries express the necessary outrage, expel foreign agents working under diplomatic cover, and, generally, get on with life. Unfriendly countries on the other hand, may, usually after the express outrage stage, do all sorts of ugly things to each others’ spies. Thus Rosanne Minchew, third secretary at the US embassy in New Delhi, is on a early flight back home.

But while the CIA’s use of a forum charged with cyber security cooperation between India and the United States as a cover for its spying was tactically brilliant, it is nevertheless a major strategic blunder. Regardless of the warming of bilateral relations at a strategic level, it will be some time before American officials can regain the trust of their Indian counterparts at the crucial working level. Worse, this episode may cause India to shy off from cooperating with the United States in the increasingly important area of information warfare. The mole in India’s National Security Council Secretariat may have delivered old reports and intelligence assessments. But the goodwill that the United States has lost is likely to circumscribe future intelligence cooperation with India, at least in the short term.

While India can congratulate itself on being able to detect and arrest the mole (perhaps without the serendipitous suspicious wife) the incident reveals that the intelligence bureaucracy is still not attuned to the pace of technological change in the computer industry. There cannot be any excuse for the NSC secretariat taking measures against the use of pen drives to download classified documents, almost a year after the naval war room leak case. A call for the responsible heads to roll would not be out of place.

An unfortunate characteristic of the UPA government’s management of the national security bureaucracy lies in its attitude towards appointments. It seems unable, unwilling or simply lazy when it comes to filling key positions that fall vacant. Months after Natwar Singh’s exit, India lacks a foreign minister. After J N Dixit’s death, there was a delay before M K Narayanan, the internal security advisor was appointed to replace him as national security advisor. Similarly after Vijay Nambiar’s move to the United Nations, the UPA government did not appoint a full time deputy NSA. The chief of the Joint Intelligence Committee was asked to oversee the NSC secretariat. That begs the question—if the government does not see the NSC secretariat as an important body (and whose functions can well be accomplished by the JIC) then isn’t it better to scrap it altogether? If, on the other hand, the NSC secretariat serves some useful function, why isn’t it being headed by a full-time chief? It should not be surprising that a loose, leaderless and lackadaisical bureaucracy is also a leaky one.

Related Link: Maverick’s take on an older case

One thought on “Pen drive panic”

  1. Hi,

    In the old days we used to bend over backwards to adhere to a code of gentlemanly conduct. Per the rules of this code – democracies would not publicly discuss each others’ spies or make public occasion out of their arrest. It is possible that GoI saw this as a way of not angering the Americans. During the Cold War, the Americans had many reasons to dislike India, for example we did not buy American arms. By openly making a fuss about American spies that we had caught we damaged America’s image. By not making a fuss, we effectively said “we understand.. its okay”.

    Spying – which some consider an idiotic game – is as old as time itself, the Americans still need to spy on India and India still needs to catch American spies if it is to survive as a soverign nation, but today the Cold War is over, and the gentleman’s code is breaking down. Generally speaking the breakdown of this code is a signal of growing uneasiness within the establishments. I would not characterize it as a latent hostility towards the US but more as part of a desire to educate the Indian elite of the perils of a misguided sense of information security.

    In some sense the Cyber Security forum was the most appropriate place to seek to penetrate India’s information security and the NSCS computer systems were the most logical place to penetrate the GoI decision making framework. It is one thing for them to look over our shoulder with their satellites but completely different to seek to attack our classified email servers. The latter is just invading peoples’ privacy.

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