Foreign offices and intelligence agencies of the world interact with each other and among themselves at two levels—formal and informal.
In the case of Foreign Offices, the formal component is much more than the informal. In the case of intelligence agencies, it is the other way round.
The formal component of Foreign Offices’ interactions consists of exchanges of notes verbales, memos, aides-memoires, non-papers etc. They remain as permanent records in the files of the respective Foreign Offices for purposes of future reference.
The informal component consists of chats between diplomats and officials and other interlocutors of the host governments over a drink or a cup of tea. It does not involve exchanges of papers of any kind. The diplomat after going back to the Embassy will send a cable to his Foreign Office as to what transpired during such informal interactions.
Intelligence agencies having a liaison relationship also follow a similar procedure when exchanging intelligence, assessments etc. Certain exchanges do involve formal papers—for example, exchanges of forensic evidence and reports.
The intelligence agencies of India and the US have been having a liaison relationship almost since 1947, but you will not find many papers formally exchanged between them. Officers responsible for liaison will meet informally over a drink in a safe house or in the lobby of a hotel, orally brief each other and then take leave of each other. When they do exchange intelligence documents, they will not indicate which agency prepared the document.
An examination of State-to-State relations between countries will reveal that often breakthroughs are achieved and policies are better understood during such informal interactions and not during formal meetings.
People tend to speak much more freely when there is no paper trail and when the meetings are informal than during formal interactions with a lot of possible paper trail.
One of the major casualties of the WikiLeaks would be such informal tête-à-tête exchanges. After seeing the damage caused by the Wikileaks, all public servants—whether political leaders or Foreign Office bureaucrats or intelligence officers— will hesitate to agree to informal meetings and to speak freely during such meetings.
To illustrate my point, I will give the example of the Cable sent by Timothy Roemer, the then US Ambassador, to the State Department on December 17, 2009, after an interaction—that was apparently informal— with M.K.Narayanan, the then National Security Adviser, on the question of David Coleman Headley, of the Chicago cell of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), who was involved in the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai.
A careful reading of this cable would indicate that M.K. and the Ambassador were informally discussing the implications of an Indian request for his extradition. The Ambassador was hinting that this could create difficulties in the way of the FBI interrogating Headley and sharing the resulting intelligence with the Indian agencies.
MK, while showing some understanding of the point made by the Ambassador, was pointing out as to why India had to make a naam-ke-vaaste request [i.e. for appearances' sake] for extradition. That is the way informal exchanges are conducted.
The US Ambassador then went back to his office and shot off a cable to the State Department. This cable has now been released by Julian Assange of WikiLeaks without editing the name of MK, thereby creating a personal embarrassment for MK and also for the Government of India in the eyes of the Indian public.
The cable shows the propensity of the GOI and its officials to exaggerate the usefulness of the Indo-US counter-terrorism co-operation when facts were otherwise. The leakage of the contents of an informal interaction would thus create political embarrassment for the host Government and the former NSA.
The result of such leakages would be a drying-up of informal interactions at the Foreign Office and intelligence agencies levels. State-to-State diplomacy and intelligence liaison would suffer as a result.
How to limit the damage and how to ensure that informal diplomatic exchanges do not suffer are questions that need to be discussed by all Foreign Offices.
An important ethical question is also involved. The media initially projected a wilful violator of the law (Assange) as a hero. Non-governmental organisations and the media created hurdles in the way of his arrest and prosecution for disseminating a large number of sensitive documents having implications for national security and State-to-State relations.
The hero has now turned a menace by releasing to the public hundreds of thousands of documents without editing them. He has become a Frankenstein’s monster. To discourage copy-cats of such monsters in future, the media and the non-governmental organisations should at least now co-operate with the authorities to facilitate his arrest and prosecution.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies