Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Spy Who Never Was

A malevolent Delhi Police and a turf- hungry Intelligence Bureau ganged up to force Naval Commander Mukesh Saini, one of India’s brightest brains in cyber security, to spend the last 42 months in Tihar Jail on cooked- up charges. Saini’s case is a horrific instance of the impunity with which our custodians of the law act. And his fight back is a testimony to the redeeming power of the Right to Information Act.

LIFE was looking rosy for Commander Mukesh Saini in the summer of 2006. He had just taken premature retirement from the Indian Navy, where he had worked as computer security specialist on deputation to the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) in New Delhi. A week after he retired at the age of 43, he cruised into a dream job with Microsoft in New Delhi. But on the night of June 11 his world came crashing down. His house in Delhi Cantonment was searched by a police party while he was away in the US. Then, when he returned post haste, he was detained for interrogation for two days, and finally arrested and charged with giving information to Rosanna Minchew, a third secretary at the US Embassy.

Saini spent three and a half years behind bars at Tihar Jail trying to understand what happened. He, along with two other persons —NSCS systems officer Shib Shankar Paul and the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) director of computers, Ujjal Dasgupta — have spent more time in jail than each one of them would have if convicted for their ‘crime’ of passing information to Minchew. Saini finally got bail in the middle of last month, but the other two remain incarcerated at Tihar.

As of this date, four years after their arrest, their trial has yet to begin. How could Indian citizens, protected by its laws and judicial process, be treated as denizens of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? The story that Saini himself pieced together through his diligent use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act is a shocking tale of illegal use of authority and vindictiveness on the part of the police and the intelligence services. Even the Pakistani terrorist and sole surviving 26/11 foot soldier, Ajmal Qasab, got a fairer deal from the government and the judicial system.

Commander (Retd) Mukesh Saini one of the three people who have been railroaded by the Delhi Police and IB in the so-called NSCS spy scandal

Saini was accused of leaking four documents to Minchew, of which two were hard copies. These were the draft of the nuclear doctrine and the impact of a possible ‘Kra Canal’ on India. And there were two other documents contained in two hard disks that the police had seized from Saini’s house. These were SIDE, or a proposal for an intelligence agencies’ network and the minutes of the Indo-US Cyber Security Forum on January 28, 2003.

The charges relating to the first two documents are patently absurd. One was a public document released to the media by the BJPled NDA government in 1999. The other is an analysis of possible consequences on India of a canal on the Kra Isthmus that links Thailand to Malaysia. This was Saini’s own paper sent out to various agencies in the government.

It never received official status, leave alone a classification. The story of the other two documents is interesting. On filing an RTI application with the Central Forensic Research Laboratory (CFSL), Chandigarh, Saini obtained the forensic log of the two documents. Both showed they had been accessed June 3, 2004 and August 27, 2004. The CFSL analysis showed the disk itself had been accessed last in June 2005 and its last access to the Internet through the disk had taken place on June 15, 2005.

These dates are important. Through another RTI application, this time to the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., Saini has shown that Minchew, the alleged agent to whom he was supposed to have passed on the information, was issued a visa only on August 3, 2005. There is a terrible irony here. Saini says that he was scrapping his old computer and being conscious of the fact that no deletion programme was effective, he removed and kept the hard disks with him while selling the rest of the machine as scrap.

Everything about the case — from Saini’s arrest and the search in his house to the collection of evidence allegedly nailing his guilt — is mired in a trail of illegalities, which includes tampering of records, misrepresenting issues to the courts and other wrongdoing on the part of the Delhi Police.

The shadowy hand of the Intelligence Bureau is also apparent, but only just. There should be no doubt, though, that it is the key driver in the operation to railroad Saini, Paul and Dasgupta.

Take the arrests. Saini was arrested on the night of June 30/July 1, 2006. Paul had already been arrested earlier on June 11, 2006, and Saini and Dasgupta were now in the police/Intelligence Bureau’s cross-hairs. Sub- Inspector Sajjan Singh of the Delhi Police Special Cell sent a letter to the NSCS chairman asking whether the two documents that related to the nuclear doctrine and the Kra Canal were classified.

The reply of the NSCS, which was issued on the letterhead of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), whose director Vinod Mall was an IB officer on deputation, wrote to say that neither of the two documents was classified. ( At the time, the NSCS had no chairman and the head of a subsidiary outfit, the JIC, Dr S. D. Pradhan, was looking after it.) O N June 30 ( in a typed letter where all the dates are conveniently written by hand), the Special Cell wrote again to say that the previous reply “ was not in the required format” and that they wanted the NSCS to comment on the Kra Canal and nuclear doctrine documents, as well as on the two other documents recovered from the hard drive.

The replies were again from Mall.

The letters were not dated and their file numbers were written by hand, and they claimed that the minutes of the cyber security forum was a classified document, as was the document on SIDE. Both, as we have shown, these could not have been transmitted by Saini to Minchew.

Mall has written three letters in response to the Delhi Police’s search for information — one had its letter number and date typed, but the other two had the letter references written in hand, and neither were they dated. Sloppy work? No, this was deliberately done to fudge the record.

Saini’s RTI search shows why this is so and his suspicion is that they were probably “ manufactured” following his arrest. It became evident soon enough when an RTI request was put to the NSCS. The reply was that the NSCS central registry had not received the letter of the Special Cell. Yet it acknowledged that a reply had been sent out by Mall. Though there was no record of the dispatch of letters from the NSCS, the claim was that they had been “ personally” received by Sajjan Singh on June 30. On appeal, the NSCS also acknowledged that they “ do not possess any file or document on which opinion was formed” on the Delhi Police’s request. So, there is no record as to why a letter purporting to be NSCS’s reply said what it did.

As an officer of the Armed Forces, Saini should have been protected by the Criminal Procedure Code’s Section 197 requiring sanction of the government for his prosecution. But even here, the system failed. The police sought sanction first from the NSCS. By this time, the NSCS had a fulltime head, former diplomat Vijay Nambiar, and he refused to give the sanction.

The police should now have logically gone to the Indian Navy.

Instead, they went to the civilian section of the Ministry of Defence — it had had no real link to Saini.

They attached a draft sanction order and the ministry, without applying its mind, gave the goahead on April 17, 2008. By this time, Saini had already been in jail for 22 months.

There are many abiding mysteries about the case, primarily as to why the police have been so vindictive.

All the evidence suggests that the case is a fabricated one.

At most, Paul is guilty of keeping some documents at home and being infatuated by Minchew. Dasgupta, who seems to be peripherally involved, is 66 years old and suffers from cardiac problems, has been denied bail along with Paul.

The bigger mystery is Minchew.

If she’s the Mata Hari made out by the IB, why does the charge- sheet not make any mention of her? If three people can be accused of transmitting intelligence to a “ foreign agent” why was that agent allowed to get away? And why’s there no Interpol red corner notice out for her? Perhaps Minchew did belong to the US intelligence service, but that should not be surprising.

Saini, Paul and Dasgupta, too, were from an intelligence- related agency and the purpose of the Indo- US Cyber Security Forum was to operationalise official cooperation between Indian and American intelligence services on cyber security.

Saini has had a lot of time to reflect on the monstrous injustice that has been done to him. But, remarkably, he is not a bitter man.

Stoic may be the best word to describe him. He is happy, he is out of jail, that his college going daughter and school- going son have managed to keep their head above water. “ My wife bore the brunt,” is all he is willing to say of the travails of his family.

BUT the obstacle race of the trial still looms and his financial situation is “ pathetic”. He says his savings will hold out for another six or seven months, “ After that, who knows ?” He is a highly qualified man — with Master’s degrees in management and computer sciences and a great deal of expertise in cyber security, the reason why Microsoft was willing to hire him in the first place.

“ But now who’ll give me a job?” he says with a resigned smile.

Despite his bitter experience, Saini hesitates to accuse the government for his predicament. This writer has followed this case from the beginning and it is apparent to him that the real reason why three people who knew each other professionally have been the target of this brazen frame- up is turf. That simple four- letter word so dear to our bureaucracy sums up the motive for the IB’s witch hunt.

All three persons in their own way were specialists in software that could network intelligence.

This is something the IB did not want because it believes that it alone can safeguard sensitive information. This is the reason why it had to destroy the Indo- US Cyber Security Forum, which would have led to greater interaction with the US, and this is the reason why it destroyed the lives of three people who represented organisations who had other proposals for sharing intelligence.

What is disturbing is the pattern of impunity in the functioning of the police and the intelligence services, one that does not bode well for the country. If three men, two of who were senior officers in the armed forces, can be treated this way, what hope is there for the poor tribal of Dantewada who is declared a Maoist, or the young Muslim accused of terrorism ? It is no secret that one of the main reasons why the Mumbai carnage took place was that the bits and pieces of information floating around with various agencies were not available in a collated form for analysis. Ironically, it is Mumbai that has helped IB win that battle and the entire intelligence networking has now been taken over by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Whether the IB can also win the war against terrorism through such sectarian tactics remains a moot question.

Mail Today June 6, 2010


Anonymous said...

This story seems to be very biased against the IB. Even an amateur can spot holes like: Mukesh Saini getting a plush posting in MS immediately after quitting NSCS, the other classified material found on SS Paul's hard disks, the alleged reports of U Dasgupta being bribed and promised overseas trips. Also, a professional agency like IB, surely wouldn't have jumped their guns without having conducted detailed surveillance on the 3 accused. Though the author makes a valid point that the 3 accused were denied even a closed-door trial and the Indian Judicial system failed them miserably, he somehow makes a giant leap to accusing IB of 'protecting its turf by disrupting the US-Indo cyber forum' without providing any facts. That the IB's counter-intelligence has been doing a stellar role by capturing moles like Madhuri Gupta makes this story misleading. Also, most of the times, intelligence agencies have to work on issues like these breaking a few rules here and there to make sure the culprits don't escape, which makes them look bad. But if it achieves the desired results and makes the country a safer place, then I am sure such minor incursions can be ignored.

Anonymous said...

I would like to suggest to the concerned ignorant and arrogant anonymous comment to get their facts right.i guess he/she must have not read the article and has apparently no knowledge about the RTI.First of all the article mentions that Saini gave his premature retirement application a good 6 months he dint gt ' plush posting in MS immediately after quitting NSCS'...and he was qualified for the job....ANYONE WHO THINS IB IS A KNIGHT IN SHININ ARMOUR is leaving in a parallel universe as he/she has not seen past and recent failures of IB...IB owes an explanation not only to Cdr.Mukesh Saini but the ppl of our nation. IB is a Draconian Organisation...
p.s: the article is about the innocence of Cdr.Saini....nt d other 2...also as a citizen of India i would plead the IB to put their "intelligence" in helping our country from terrorist attacks which apparently they so fall out to outsmart....AND STOP PLAYING WITH THE LAW ESPECIALLY USING IT!
I Applaud the judiciary and the esteemed judge for making the right decision.