Spy Case Should The Media Apologise?
The bizarre reporting in the Indian media, especially by some leading television channels, jeopardising the careers and credibility of a number of Indian intelligence officers, raises the question if the media has harmed Indian security interests. Self-discipline was clearly not in sight.
Espionage is serious business, but is nothing new. Countries penetrate important political, military, economic and strategic sectors of each other, succeed a lot of times and agents get caught periodically.
There are no boundaries in espionage, and it is conducted even between countries who are allies and have the best of relationships. Israel
spies on the US, and has got caught. India and the US have intelligence co-operation, but this has not prevented the US from raising sources in the Indian establishment, and getting exposed, too.
In the past, exposure of agents and their handlers used to be dealt with as quietly as possible. Today, with media activism and its increased reach, espionage cases are getting far more public attention. This is good, because potential sources would think twice before falling to allurements offered by a foreign agent.
But the media must be aware that the world of intelligence or espionage is a rather dark and opaque, where there are no rules and no protection. It is especially true of foreign intelligence, where, to succeed, the agents have to break the laws of the host country. It is a high tension job, and some people crack under it. Counter-intelligence agents look for targets with vulnerability, including psychological.
Another aspect the media must be acutely sensitive to, is the rivalry between different intelligence agencies of a country. The rivalry between the CIA and the FBI in the US is well known. So is the case in India. Therefore, the media must be extremely cautious about the credibility of their “sources”.
Given this backdrop, the initial media reporting in the ongoing Madhuri Gupta case was anything but correct or responsible.
Some television talk show hosts and their “investigative” journalists were crowing that they had all the facts, that they knew the culprits who were assisting Madhuri Gupta in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad.
One such journalist stated on a television show that Gupta worked with the RAW station Chief RK Sharma in the Information Section of the High Commission. She also insinuated that Sharma may have been having a sexual relationship with Gupta, remarking that Sharma and the 53-year-old Gupta were on “buddy” terms, and apparently Gupta was procuring vital information from Sharma, like the legendary Mata Hari, in bed!
It was stated with confidence that RK Sharma was summoned to New Delhi and was being “interrogated” about his role in the espionage, basically indicating he was a suspect spy. RK Sharma became a condemned man, an anti-national, in the eyes of the Indian public.
It was also suggested the entire RAW outfit in India’s Islamabad mission was under a cloud, and that RAW had been penetrated to the core, thus questioning the veracity of intelligence provided by the organisation to the government. This is an extremely serious charge against an organisation which is the backbone of Indian foreign intelligence, on which policy depends.
Abject non-understanding of how seniority works in the Government of India, especially the Foreign Ministry, was displayed when a highly-reputed anchor described Madhuri Gupta as a very senior diplomat. It defies any intelligent observer’s imagination how a national television channel which has done very good work otherwise, is so woefully inadequate while reporting on such a high-profile subject.
Questions were also raised about how Gupta could drive into India in her Pakistani diplomatic registered car. Was it being suggested that the Indian customs at the Wagah border were also compromised in some manner?
It is correct that Gupta drove, in her car. But there is nothing irregular about it. There is a simple process that has to be followed, perfectly legal. All records are registered so that an Indian diplomat does not come in and dispose of his or her car illegally in India. Driving into India by Indian diplomats from Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh is not an unknown practice.
When Gupta drove to Jammu, she was already under surveillance by the Intelligence Bureau (IB). She did not pick up any classified documents as there were none.
She came on directions of her Pakistani handler, Rana, but went back with a failed mission. She took some photographs of the city to prove to Rana that she had visited Jammu.
It was also widely reported that Madhuri Gupta had supplied her handlers with very important documents and sensitive information. The list included Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s policy on Pakistan and the location of Indian Embassy officials in a hotel in Kabul which was attacked by terrorists resulting in several deaths not only of Indians but others too.
Such reporting is not only unfortunate, but horrifying, misinforming the public at large. Nobody cared to question the kind of access Gupta really had.
Madhuri Gupta was a Second Secretary in the Information Wing,
basically involved in translating Urdu newspapers in Pakistan. The Prime Minister’s policy does not float around in the High Commission in printed form.
The person privy to such briefing is mainly the High Commissioner, that too verbally, during visits to New Delhi. It is up to the High Commissioner how he shares this with his colleagues in the mission. And that would be very few.
How would Gupta know about what India was doing in Afghanistan? There is absolutely no chance. The two missions are independent of each other, with an outstanding officer of the Indian Foreign Service heading the Indian Mission in Kabul.
Of course, Madhuri Gupta was a frustrated officer. Her educational qualifications and competence were higher than her colleagues of the batch. Unfortunately, she joined the Ministry in 1983 in the Assistant Grade.
In the government, there is no scope to give brilliant employees special promotion. She became arrogant, and fell foul of her seniors. She became frustrated. Injustice meted out to her included refusal to give her leave with pay for her PhD on Islam and Sufism.
But Gupta’s case is not unique. Many others have suffered misfortune at the hands of officialdom. Perhaps, being single and having lost her parents, she had no shoulder to cry on. She became vulnerable.
In Pakistan, she was befriended by a Pakistani journalist of an Urdu newspaper, who was blacklisted by the High Commission because of his vitriolic anti-India writings.
He wanted Gupta’s help to remove him from the blacklist, but the efforts did not succeed. This journalist introduced her to her handler Rana, an intelligence officer, who appreciated her intellectual capabilities, especially of a Hindu appreciating the values of Islam. He gave her a shoulder to cry on, and won her over.
She had no real value intelligence to provide Rana. It was only after Rana began pushing her for more sensitive information that Gupta started making probing inquiries with her mission colleagues.
This raised the antenna of senior officers of the Mission including RK Sharma, all of whom reported to the High Commissioner and their respective organisation chiefs. Therefore, the IB took over the case in co-operation with the foreign ministry.
Incidentally, the media should know that Rana was not an ISI officer, but an officer of the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau (IB). Had the Pak IB involved the ISI there could have been some real damage. Rivalry between agencies prevented that.
Who were the so-called credible sources of the media? Where does their credibility stand now? The misinformation given by the so-called sources trying to implicate the RAW obviously had engaged in a “deflection of responsibility” operation.
Were the sources institutionalised actors, or individual rogue actors? Will these media stalwarts come out and expose their misinforming sources, or continue to rely on them for more sensationalism, in the interests of TRP?
The irresponsible reporting has harmed national security interests, damaged the reputation of Indian government officials, and brought a premier organisation to disrepute.
Today, the media has moved on to other stories without even an apology. Will the media address these questions openly? Otherwise, they have no grounds to complain if sections of the national security act are extended in some way to them.
Quoting freedom of press in the US or the UK is futile. All of them have eminently absolved themselves on such mistakes. Certainly, telephone intercepts by the government on political espionage is another matter.
The “Watergate” exposure in the US stands out as an example of media responsibility.
The reporting on the Madhuri Gupta case by the Indian media stands out as national irresponsibility.
The writer, who retired recently as a senior government official with decades of national and international experience, is an expert on international relations and Indian strategic interests.
By Bhaskar Roy