Days after Outlook’s expose on illegal phone-tapping, a few senior intelligence officials agreed to speak to us on how the tapping raj actually works. These sleuths had maintained silence so far, fearing the government would act against them for speaking out. Now, in an exclusive interaction with Outlook, stretching over several hours and sessions, they have come forward with revelations both shocking and frightening. They confirm that cellphones of top political leaders, ministers, VIPs, bureaucrats, businessmen and ordinary citizens were tapped without written authorisation from the Union home secretary, as mandated by law. They also shared details of how the illegal tapping actually takes place and how NTRO functions. The whistle-blowers even offered to depose before a joint parliamentary committee and provide documentary evidence. The one condition they insist on: that they be provided complete legal immunity. Excerpts from the interactions:
What was your reaction to the Outlook expose?
We were actually surprised that your magazine has come so close to the truth with so many verifiable facts. There may be a mistake or two in the details. But illegal tapping is a reality.
How do you react to the statement made by Union home minister P. Chidambaram in Parliament that the government did not authorise any cellphone tapping or eavesdropping on political leaders? He also said nothing has been found in the records of the NTRO or elsewhere to substantiate the allegations.
Do you really think that if the phone of a senior Congress leader like Digvijay Singh has to be tapped, the Union home secretary will issue a written authorisation? And the home minister is not denying the tapping. Nor is he denying the existence of the technology. All he is saying is that the government never authorised it. Orders come to us verbally, and at times on a yellow slip with the target specifics. As far as his reference to records not substantiating (the phone-tapping claims), do you think the NTRO will keep the transcripts? But what is of interest is that the minister calls NTRO a “technical organisation” rather than an intelligence outfit. It was actually set up by a special task force on intelligence. If it was merely a technical organisation, why was NTRO deploying this machine in the first place?
Why did all of you agree to speak to Outlook?
We in the intelligence community in India have long been aware of a lot of activities bordering on the illegal. On most occasions, any attempt to bring out the truth has been crushed by the government of the day. Whistle-blowers have also been silenced by physical and other threats. This illegal tapping is harmful for our national security as well as our democracy. When your story came out, many of us thought of it as a good opportunity to expose the misuse of agencies and make them accountable to Parliament and the taxpayers.
At what exact point did we acquire new technologies such as passive interception or off-the-air GSM/CDMA monitoring equipment?
(We acquired them) when we realised that terrorists infiltrating from across the border were using Pakistani or Bangladeshi sim cards. These cellphone networks had a large footprint in our border areas and we couldn’t intercept them on a real-time basis. We procured these machines therefore for deployment along the border so that any number from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi service provider would immediately come on the radar. At one point, it was calculated that eventually 926 machines would have to be imported. NTRO began to acquire the monitoring systems in 2005, after the organisation had been formalised by a gazette notification on April 14, 2004. On January 7, 2006, its capabilities were demonstrated to the then NSA, M.K. Narayanan. Your magazine got a small bit wrong. The call that was intercepted was not one to his office as reported. It was to the then director, Intelligence Bureau (IB), E.S.L. Narsimhan (the present governor of Andhra Pradesh). Narayanan immediately flew into a rage and said this was a dangerous machine. He asked NTRO to hand it over immediately to the IB. Since there were no written orders, the machine was handed over but the vehicle on which it had been mounted was held back. There was an effort to get a written order for the handing over but no such order came. However, the minutes of the meeting with the NSA did mention this.
What do you make of the government’s statement that there was no authorisation for tapping the phones of political leaders like Digvijay Singh and Nitish Kumar?
That is true. There was no authorisation. In fact, all phones and their signals were being heard without a single authorisation from the Union home secretary as required by law. In fact, if you check the records for the deployment of these machines in Delhi, you will see there was no authorisation for a single specific mobile number. The whole practice was illegal right from the word go. No records were to be kept.
You mean that none of the interceptions were legal?
Yes, from a legal point of view, none of these machines ever intercepted any call legally. If you have a machine that can monitor calls from the air, then you can go on a fishing expedition. If you carefully consider what the government has stated in Parliament, it doesn’t deny the existence of such machines. Nor does it deny that these machines have been deployed on various occasions.
So where is the illegality?
As per Section 5 of the Telegraph Act, 1885, and the 1996 Supreme Court judgement, you can only intercept a specific phone number. The number has to be detected by intelligence authorities prior to the interception and a justification prepared. You must have the number before you begin interception. You then submit the number to the Union home secretary with a written justification. If he is convinced, he gives the written authorisation and the interception of that particular number can begin.
So, no such authorisation was given?
As we said, if you don’t have a specific phone number, then how can you authorise its interception? If the target is a VIP, why will the Union home secretary give a written authorisation? One also has to note that this equipment is sent out to keep searching for that one possible number among thousands which may be of value from a national security point of view. By then, however, you have already intercepted a thousand calls and all of them illegally. The vehicles are deployed every day in some part of the country or the other, mostly in Delhi. On no single occasion did the vehicle go out with the authorisation of the home secretary. We did try to safeguard a few VIPs, including senior intelligence officials, by creating a set of mobile numbers, which could not be tapped. If the machine detected this number while scanning, it would shut down immediately. But how many private, top secret numbers can we secure and protect in the long run? If Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi’s numbers are not on that list, we can tap them as well. That is the system’s greatest strength and weakness.
How does it work?
It can intercept the signal between the mobile handset and the nearest cellphone tower. The machine picks up the signal, decrypts it and we start recording it. You don’t even need to know the number of a particular cellphone. We can hear calls randomly, and when we hear something of interest, we record it and disseminate it to all concerned agencies. The machine has 32 channels and it can be expanded to 64 channels. That means we can intercept 64 calls simultaneously. We usually work in eight-hour shifts but it is not physically possible to record all calls. In fact 99.99 per cent of calls are useless and most have to be deleted to save space on the hard disks.
But the government says it has checked records and found nothing. About Digvijay Singh, they claim the machine was deployed in Kashmir at that time....
It can be proved easily if a proper and independent inquiry is conducted. Those deposing before such a committee must be given legal immunity from prosecution. If we are given such a legal immunity, we shall be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that such tapping did take place. About the machine being in Kashmir, there are five such machines. One could be there. Your story could also have got the month wrong. We recall that it was in the first quarter of 2007. The call took place at about 11.30 am and Digvijay Singh did discuss the Congress Working Committee and assembly elections with a leader from Punjab. Nitish Kumar’s call was on October 27, 2007, at about 4 pm.
Were political leaders the only target?
Not just the political leaders mentioned in your story but also a host of others—bureaucrats, corporate leaders and other well-known people. In fact, the machine could record even our mobiles. That’s why we put a signal-jammer in our car!
In Digvijay Singh’s case, was the tapping intentional or accidental?
We don’t know the motives.
But the government is claiming it has gone through the records and found no such tapping as mentioned earlier?
The government is pretending that only NTRO taps phones despite the fact that several other agencies—the IB, CBI, Narcotics Control Bureau, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Economic Intelligence Bureau, Enforcement Directorate and the local police of each state—also have this rogue machine. The NTRO is not even on the authorised list of agencies which can conduct phone taps. Like RAW, which is also not among the authorised agencies, it is only supposed to conduct cross-border technical intelligence-gathering. You will find details of only those mentioned calls which were of relevance to the security agencies. We don’t know what happened to the calls of those political leaders your magazine mentions whose phones were tapped. But they would never be entered into the log system. There is, however, another way to corroborate the issue.
We know that every operations vehicle carrying this surveillance system has two logbooks. One is an open logbook, which doesn’t have any details. The other is an operations logbook, which is marked ‘Top Secret’. Only the chief of the organisation or an officer authorised by him is allowed to audit or access this ‘Top Secret’ log. At least three officers sign it on a daily or monthly basis. This logbook has all the details of the deployment of the machine. If this is submitted to an inquiry committee probing illegal tapping, then it will immediately confirm the interceptions, including those of some of the political leaders mentioned in your story as well as others probably. These logbooks also have other details in various columns such as the name of the team leaders, the destination from base unit and all other subsequent places the vehicle has travelled to, with details of opening and closing kilometre readings. There are entries which show each of the destinations where the machine was deployed on a particular day as well as the exact time the vehicle left and returned to the base unit. Such a logbook is maintained for each month with remarks of the team leader. Later, other senior officials sign it. Just match these logbooks in the presence of the officials who signed it and then see if there is any written authorisation from the Union home secretary. You will see it doesn’t exist.
But the logbooks can be destroyed or changed or manipulated after the expose?
As far as we know, the rules specifically state that the operations logbook cannot be destroyed for a period of five years. So the logbook from 2006 should still be available. Each page has been signed by a different set of officials of different ranks. Once the logbooks are examined by a JPC and matched with the deposition of those who signed it as well as the written authorisation by the Union home secretary, if any, it will prove beyond doubt that illegal tapping took place. The government also claims that all interception occurred with authorisation. If so, then please bring out the authorisation letters of the home secretary and match them with the deployment of the vehicles on a daily basis. They won’t match. But only a JPC can establish this. Any other inquiry would be a joke and a cover-up operation as has been the case in the past.
But why do you seek legal immunity? After all, you will be exposing an illegal activity.
See what happened in Major General V.K. Singh’s case. After his book on corruption in RAW came out, the government prosecuted him under the Official Secrets Act. It ignored the allegations of corruption in the book but prosecuted him. It has also changed the pension rules for officials serving in intelligence agencies. We now have to sign an oath of secrecy and as per the amended pension rules issued by the department of personnel, we cannot reveal anything even after retirement. We can now be deprived of our pension. So, we are liable for prosecution in some form or the other even after we retire from service. Give us legal immunity and we would be happy to provide the proof of the illegal tapping.
Which Delhi areas was the machine deployed in?
They are deployed in all VIP zones such as Chanakyapuri, Lodhi Road, South Avenue, North Avenue as well as North Block and South Block. This way, the machine records lots and lots of calls of ministers, MPs, bureaucrats, lobbyists, arms dealers, editors and journalists. In fact, on one occasion, it recorded a ministry official in South Block discussing a bribe of Rs 8 crore. He had already received about Rs 3 crore and was seeking the rest of the money to clear a major contract. On other occasions, the machine intercepted calls of the wives of MPs discussing personal and sensitive matters, corporate leaders seeking private liaisons in hotels. Once a corporate leader was heard seeking a woman for Rs 11 lakh for seven nights. Most of the corporate calls at night are for sex. On another occasion, a woman official of DRDO was heard near the Nizamuddin bridge area discussing some very personal liaisons.
Isn’t such information dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands?
Completely illegal and dangerous. The actual operators listening in are lowly-paid officials earning about Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000. They can cause immense harm and blackmail people they are tapping. As usual, all this activity is conducted without obtaining any written authorisation for any specific phone number. These are random sweeps, which pick and record calls with impunity.
Who does the NTRO report to?
Since the organisation is supposed to conduct trans-border intelligence-gathering operations, it earlier reported to the NSA M.K. Narayanan. In fact, he was also part of the task force that recommended the setting up of the NTRO. If you notice the system put in place by the current home minister after 26/11—he has a meeting with the chiefs of the IB and RAW chief in his office every day. But the one intelligence chief missing from this meeting is the NTRO head. He continues to report to the NSA as was the practice earlier. But Mr Chidambaram has managed to curtail a lot of the misuse of the intelligence agencies.
Have state governments begun purchasing this system?
Yes. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana are some of the governments which now have this equipment. These were brought through secret service funds and not shown on paper as off-the-air interception equipment. In many states, the additional dgp reports directly to the chief minister.
If these machines are so useful, why aren’t they deployed in Maoist-affected areas?
It is impractical because the areas that the Maoists inhabit are so large that you would need to deploy hundreds of these machines simultaneously to get results. These are usually used for either border areas or urban areas. Even the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles tried in Chhattisgarh have proved to be an utter failure.
Does NTRO have any significant achievement to its credit?
Once, as far as we know, the NTRO helped detect and neutralise 30 militants infiltrating from the Indo-Bangladesh border. The clinching piece of intelligence was one intercepted call where the militant said that the ‘sheep’ are planning to cross over at a certain time and place. What caught the attention of the intelligence officials monitoring the call was that the caller mentioned that one sheep would have $200 with it. This confirmed that these were militants and the BSF managed to neutralise them successfully within hours of the interception. Similarly, Thuraya satphones used to be intercepted quite successfully. NTRO did some good work during 26/11 by intercepting the phone calls of the terrorists during that period.
Can off-the-air GSM/CDMA system be rendered ineffective?
Yes, of course, if you deploy jammers. But that is not practical or foolproof as cellphones go out of range sometime or the other. When that happens, the equipment can start monitoring the cellphone again.