CBI war hits RAW nerve: AK Bassi's plea in SC indicates collusions between intel wing's top officer and bureau's Rakesh Asthana

New Delhi: Evidence of unexplained contact between Samant Goel, the head of the Research and Analysis Wing’s West Asia operations, and two Dubai-based brothers named as suspects in an ongoing bribery investigation, could compel the Union Government to initiate an inquiry into the actions of an officer tipped to be India’s next spymaster, highly-placed sources have told Firstpost.

The Supreme Court was informed on Monday, through pleadings filed by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Deputy Superintendent of Police Ajay Kumar Bassi, that the agency had intercepted a conversation between RAW’s Goel and banker Somesh Prasad, warning the Dubai-based fugitive not to return to India 'at any cost'.

In addition, Bassi’s pleadings say that the arrest of Prasad’s brother, Manoj Prasad, on 18 October, sparked off a series of phone conversations between him, Goel, and Rakesh Asthana — the CBI second-in-command at the heart of the still-unfolding crisis in the agency.

The CBI named Goel in a First Information Report filed against Asthana earlier this month, but did not accuse him of committing a crime.

In one phone call intercepted by the CBI, Somesh Prasad told his father-in-law, Sunil Mittal, that Goel had met Asthana after criminal proceedings were filed early in October. Somesh Prasad described Asthana as “apna aadmi”, or “our man”. Following Manoj Prasad’s arrest, Bassi’s plea states, Goel made multiple phone calls to both Asthana and Somesh Prasad.

Bassi was among two officers involved in investigating Asthana when the government sent both the CBI second-in-command and his boss, Alok Verma, on leave. His Supreme Court plea — which claims he is being persecuted by the agency for investigating Asthana — does not allege Goel received payoffs.

However, Bassi’s plea suggests Goel maintained an inappropriate relationship the Prasad brothers, despite knowing they were the subjects of a criminal investigation.

RAW chief Anil Dhasmana had been pushing for Goel’s elevation to the top job, bypassing two more-senior officials. K Illango, the second-in-command at RAW, has extensive experience in both Kashmir and Sri Lanka, and R Kumar is an offensive-operations expert considered among the most able professionals to have ever worked in the organisation.

 CBI war hits RAW nerve: AK Bassis plea in SC indicates collusions between intel wings top officer and bureaus Rakesh Asthana

File image of CBI special director Rakesh Asthana. PTI

Dhasmana, highly-placed government sources have said, has defended Goel’s relationship with the Prasad brothers, telling National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval these were founded on an intelligence relationship. The banker brothers, Dhasmana argued, offered privileged insights into the use of Dubai’s financial system by criminal cartels based in Pakistan.

However, one RAW official said, “Once it became clear that the Prasad brothers were sought in criminal proceedings, it was simply unacceptable for Goel to have maintained the relationship. RAW cannot and ought not offer deals to Indian nationals sought by Indian authorities for crimes against the Indian state."

Posted to Dubai early in his career, the former Punjab Police officer turned in passable, though unspectacular, results. His last major overseas assignment, in London early this decade, focussed on political reconciliation with one-time Khalistan leaders, by giving them visas and allowing them to return home.

Goel’s London tenure, however, marred by a row that broke out with the United Kingdom’s MI6, after he claimed one of its officers—a Sikh—harboured Khalistan sympathies.

Following the appointment of BK Chaturvedi as RAW chief in 2007, Goel acquired a key role in counter-intelligence—the agency’s operations to monitor its own officials. He continued to play a key role in counter-intelligence under KC Verma, RAW’s chief from 2009-2013.

The role of counter-intelligence in RAW expanded dramatically after 2004, when mid-ranking officer Rabinder Singh defected to the United States of America, after years of passing on intelligence assessments to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Goel was, however, seen by some officers as using his power to spy on powerful colleagues seen as a threat by RAW’s chiefs—on one occasion leading to a showdown with an officer then running operations targeting Pakistan, an official familiar with the affair said.

In 2015, Goel had been under consideration to return to Punjab as the state’s intelligence chief—which would have put him in line for becoming the State’s Director-General of Police.

Both part of the 1984 batch of the Indian Police Service, Asthana and Goel have been closely tied as players in the bureaucratic gang-war that exploded last week. Last year, Goel had issued a two page unsigned note, alleging Enforcement Directorate officer Rajeshwar Singh had been in touch with Mohammad Alam Shah, an Indian businessman RAW claimed had links to the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

The report was submitted to Revenue Secretary Hasmukh Adhia, as well as the Supreme Court. The Enforcement Directorate later denied the report—and RAW was unable to substantiate its findings, after it was pointed out the agency had done nothing to detain or investigate Shah though he regularly travelled to India.

Enforcement Directorate chief Karnal Singh also defended Rajeshwar Singh, saying he had reported the conversation with Shah to his superiors, adding that it centred around information of intelligence value.

This first skirmish escalated into a full blown war between CBI chief Verma and his Enforcement Directorate allies, against Asthana and Goel. The CBI FIR filed against Asthana in February alleges he received over Rs 3 crore in payoffs in the course of ongoing investigations — with Goel playing the role of a conduit.

The Prasad brothers have denied the allegations. "This is a fight between two elephants and one mouse has been caught in between," Manoj Prasad’s lawyer, Sidharth Luthra said during legal proceedings in the Delhi High Court, referring to the conflict between Verma and his deputy.

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Updated Date: Oct 31, 2018 08:06:12 IST