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How Do Spies Operate, Communicate And Survive In A Foreign Land? A Spy-Master Explains

India and Pakistan have locked horns over the latter handing out a death-sentence to Kulbhushan Jadhav, an alleged spy

How Do Spies Operate, Communicate And Survive In A Foreign Land? A Spy-Master Explains
How Do Spies Operate, Communicate And Survive In A Foreign Land? A Spy-Master Explains

India and Pakistan again find themselves locked in a war-of-words over Kulbhushan Jadhav, a former Indian Navy officer whom Pakistan calls an Indian spy. Those from across the border have thrown a death-sentence at Jadhav, who was reportedly captured from Iran by the Taliban and sold off to Pakistan.

To the average being, knowledge of the world of spies is limited to movies and dramatic visuals. They are entrusted with ferreting out information from a country for specific purposes. On the condition of anonymity, a former intelligence officer gave a glimpse to Outlook on the craft of being a ‘spy’ and their modus operandi.

“Intelligence is collecting information through different means. There is what we call ‘Technical Intelligence’ and then there is ‘Human Intelligence’. Technical intelligence is the use of means such as eavesdropping, tapping phones and using satellites. On the other hand, Human Intelligence can be collected openly, say through diplomatic contacts. It is a legitimate way, one that ensures that you have diplomatic cover in the country you are operating in. It’s like the job of a reporter, if you are stationed in Kathmandu, you report back what you see there.

The other side is ‘Clandestine Human Intelligence’. Here, we raise local sources in the country. It is not clearly legal also considering that our motivation here is different. Ultimately, our intentions here are different.

On the Kinds of Clandestine Human Intelligence

In some cases we send someone, a mole, with a false identity, to get information usually from an organization. They are expected to lie low and operate only when needed. 

Another is someone who isn’t a mole, but becomes a resident of the country. For example, a Pakistan national can get a fake ID in India, get married here, and even settle down, in some cases. It is then that they begin operations.

Observatory sources also exist. He could be a paanwaala who is stationed outside a cantonment and gives information on any movement.

Again, this is offensive intelligence where we try and gain information. The counter-intelligence work, which entails defending the country from foreign intelligence, is done by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) in India.

On Offensive and Counter Intelligence

Offensive intelligence is done by R&AW. We either convert local people to sources or send our own people there. The same is done by the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency). When we say someone is under cover, there is a legitimate reason for them to be there. There is information to be gathered from various sectors. We are not interested in what happens in certain countries but Pakistan is related to our security considering they foster terrorism.

Modus Operandi of Clandestine Operatives

Communication is the most important issue here. There are different methods to communicate with a source in a foreign land. In the older days, there was ‘secret writing’ written with invisible ink and inserted into newspaper reports. Instructions were written literally between the lines and were visible under ultraviolet (UV) light. Other methods of secure writing include ‘pre-determined code’. I could say India is getting bats; bats being the word for guns, for example. And this code varies from agent-to-agent. Now, more sophisticated tools like satellite phones with in-built encryption are used. With social-media however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to track and break down messages even when you’re aware of what may happen. On many occasions we don’t even know if something will happen. WhatsApp, for example, has an encryption code of its own which can be broken through legal measures. 

 Transferring money is not as much of an issue as it was earlier; now it’s more difficult for governments to track where the money came from. An earlier practice was to open a Swiss bank account and give the agent instructions and transfer money in three to four stages. The modern method is to float an innocuous company and use that to send funds. When there are transactions from outside the country, it becomes very difficult to track unless the government there is willing to co-operate and you have signed a treaty with them.

India does have operatives outside the SAARC countries, and they function ‘within limits’. The other countries are more experienced with intelligence than we are, thanks to the World Wars. We didn’t go through that turmoil. We are not interested in their local governments like America is; we do not have ‘super-power ambitions’. For example, a lot of intelligence was used in Pakistan during the 1980s, when they were exploring nuclear activity.

How do agents exit a country in case of danger?

There are different ways. The easiest way is to escape as ‘clandestinely’ as they’ve come in. Between neighbouring countries, border crossings used by smugglers and the like are used. If they are in Pakistan, a boat to Gujarat is a possibility. There is a problem if they are deployed in remote countries like China or Russia where border-crossing is difficult. Even in those situations, illegal migrants find their way. For entry into the US, they fly to Bangkok and then to Mexico, and get into the states on foot. For the UK, they head to Poland and hitchhike their way into France.

Are women spies part of our intelligence agencies?

It’s very difficult to say how many women are part of operations. It could be 5 percent or something like that. In the former Eastern Bloc and Russia, they used a large number of women, specifically for purposes like honey-trapping. We’ve not done anything like that; as I said, our experience is quite limited.

What are the challenges a spy faces?

There are many challenges for a source. Assimilating with the local culture so as to not stand out like a sore thumb is a priority. They need to study the local culture and behaviour and try and fit in. Language is also a concern. Even if Hindi is spoken with an accent, it is easy to figure out. For example, a lot of LTTE personnel from Sri Lanka had settled in Tamil Nadu as they spoke the same Tamil in north Jaffna as some of the Tamils in India."

As told to Siddhartha Mishra

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