In 1928, legendary English writer W. Somerset Maugham described the nature of intelligence work as “extremely monotonous, a lot of which is uncommonly useless”. He was writing the preface of his novel Ashendon or The British Agent on his involvement with British Intelligence during the First World War. Naturally, he had to present a “fictionalised” version in Ashendon.
Terrorism added a new dimension to intelligence, literature style, when publishers realised that a melange of horror and glamour was a perdurable commercial proposition. Bullets shattering champagne glasses under crystal chandeliers in luxury hotels provided dramatic effect, as in the widely-retailed 26/11 terror stories. Wanton killings of poor passengers in the railway station did not merit such attention.
Spy Stories by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, written in a Robert Ludlum genre, has received impressive publicity in mainstream Indian media. Almost every review has repeated the book’s blurb that the authors had “unprecedented access to the R.A.W. and the ISI”. It is well researched, with copious notes on each piece of information presented.
This acclaim has made them a reference point here on the comparative capability of Indian and Pakistani intelligence systems, especially after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. As against this, I could not trace a single review in the Pakistani media.
The authors have said that senior Indian and Pakistani intelligence officers welcomed to being interviewed by them. They would tape over a hundred officers over a decade, with their interlocutors freely discussing the most sensitive aspects. Take for instance this sentence on Page xvii about an Indian officer, still in service: “We satellited around him when he was undercover, and in recent years, more openly, to debate the past and the future, sharing a passion, especially for Southeast Asia and beyond”.
In India they spoke “at length” to six former heads of RAW and “a clutch of senior officers” at different levels as well as “the founding figures in India’s strategic world” serving in Prime Minister’s Office, Intelligence Bureau, Defence Intelligence Agency, Rashtriya Rifles and Border Security Force. Some of these very senior officers are named by them.
In Pakistan, they interviewed seven former ISI chiefs, their Joint Intelligence heads and deputy director generals and their support staff for the “war on terror” years, including ISI’s regional desk officers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They met the police, the judiciary, personnel from the Federal Investigation Agency and journalists. ‘Major Iftikar’, who had participated in ISI’s “most controversial operations” and had left the service, was secretly met by them in Dubai doing “export” work after “he had gone dark” in 2011.
As a result, they could compile “wish lists for both sides of the Line of Control (LoC)” and “wade through” the world of clandestine operators, case officers, “targeters” and analysts. In that process, they became the ‘Gavrilov’ channel between both services (Page 8). They claim twice in the book that the highest Indian security official, still in charge, “had supported the idea of this book”.
A closer study would reveal doubts on these presumptuous claims. Firstly, Gavrilov was a direct link and not through intermediaries. In 1983 Anatoli Kireyev, chief of KGB’s Counterintelligence Directorate, proposed this idea to Burton Gerber, CIA’s Director of Operations at Geneva. However, it was neither useful for probing each other’s capability, to answer a query from India’s topmost official (“How was it over there”, page 7) nor as a crisis communications link.
Gavrilov failed in 1984, when CIA requested KGB to rescue their officer William Buckley, who was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad, over whom Soviets had influence. Buckley died in captivity. It again failed in 1985, when KGB requested CIA to trace out their officer Igor Ghezha, missing from India. The New York Times (March 25, 1985) explained the reason: Ghezha was given asylum in the US.
What was the secret of the authors’ success in penetrating strict protocol of secrecy by intelligence officers in both countries when they are legally barred in revealing any aspect of their working to outsiders, especially foreigners? Have they made this audacious claim knowing fully well that no serving or retired intelligence officer in India and Pakistan would comment in public on such claims?
This problem is manifest with ‘Monisha’, their resolute contact in RAW, introduced on Page 14. Monisha appears during every crisis like an expert Lydian stone, be it on Sri Lanka, Pakistan or terrorism. The authors want us to believe that in RAW she handled most of the key operational assignments in all areas. This is not normal in any intelligence agency.
“Hazel-eyed” and “pale-skinned”, Monisha was “located” by them near Seattle after she had “changed her name” and left her service “for personal and political reasons”. She asked them “to switch to Wire, the same discreet Swiss app that Iftikar relied upon” to communicate with them.
Monisha chose to serve in RAW in the early 1980s “on a career that she was unable to talk about”. Yet what she did was to break all these taboos. She pops up again and again in the book till May 2016 (Page 242-43) while she was in service discussing landmark events on India’s crisis-borne relations with Sri Lanka or Pakistan. She finally left RAW in or around 2016, when she found her colleagues “conspiring” with politicians to create events or misconstrue them. “This is not my vision of India or the RAW,” she told the authors.
Her disenchantment started when she was not able to get “traction” in Lodhi Road on her conclusions over Mumbai 26/11 terror attack, although she had noted that CIA had passed on 18 advance alerts to RAW. This reference was picked up by some political groups in August 2021 to allege that the previous Congress government had ignored 18 detailed warnings from foreign agencies on 26/11.
However, this was public knowledge. FBI Director Robert Mueller had spoken to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on February 23, 2009, about US intelligence contribution before 26/11. On November 9, 2009, I had given details of 26/11 intelligence while delivering the keynote address to the 2009 Asia Pacific Homeland Security Summit (Honolulu) in the presence of senior security officials. I had also published several columns on this throughout 2009.
Who was “Monisha”? One hint the authors give is on Pages 25- 26 when they mention that she took a certain RAW chief (“operationally bold and analytically incisive”), who took charge in 1987, as her “guide”. Monisha worked on “critical thinking” and visited Chennai for locating ISI footprints on Tamil regional politics.
It so happened that I had worked very closely with all the chiefs of RAW from 1976 till 1995. Especially from 1986 to 1990, I was the chief of staff to three RAW chiefs, including the “operationally bold” chief.
In 1987, a certain lady officer answering Monisha’s description was inducted. She was initially entrusted with a very minor part of the Sri Lankan desk for training, for which she had visited Chennai. However, she did it with unusual fanfare. In 1993, she had to be repatriated to her “parent” service on adverse behaviour. Yet in the book she was present till 2016, interpreting all the events, including 26/11.
The book would certainly entertain like the Bourne series, but does not serve as authentic intelligence history.
(The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, who was part of the two-man high-level enquiry committee on the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks)