Rabinder Singh, spy who defected to US, is no more: Double agent lived his last years as a remorseful recluse
Rabinder Singh, an army Major who joined R&AW on deputation, rose through the ranks of India’s external spy agency before he was recruited by the CIA.
New Delhi: Rabinder Singh, a R&AW spy who fell for a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) trap and defected to Washington in 2004, is dead. The double agent passed away sometime in late 2016 in a road accident in Maryland, informed government sources said. Singh was living as a refugee in the US after CIA dumped him months after a dramatic extraction to the US through Kathmandu in May 2004. He was faced with financial problems since the CIA had stopped sending him pay cheques. Singh’s attempts to get a job at a US think tank run by a former CIA deputy director were stonewalled, pushing him into deep depression, claimed an officer requesting not to be identified. A remorseful Singh, burdened with the sin of betraying his country, spent almost 12 years as a recluse in New York, Maryland and neighboring Virginia, where his extended family lives.
“We don’t know whether he is in heaven or hell, but what is clear is that he couldn’t take the guilt of betraying his country after his dream of being treated as a guest of state was shattered towards the end of 2004. He was totally neglected by the CIA and his efforts to get asylum were blocked by the American intelligence. He was left in the cold. He had invented a lie for US-based relatives that his life was in danger in India. They were convinced and despite so much material available about his treachery in the public domain, he was revered by relatives as a loving and kindhearted person. His death is seen as the closure of the case that was vigorously pursued till 2007. The betrayal of Rabinder Singh is one that R&AW would rather like to forget now,” the source said.
Singh, an army Major who joined R&AW on deputation in mid- 1980s, rose through the ranks of India’s external spy agency before he was recruited by the CIA. There is no clarity when he was compromised, however, sources claimed it was possibly either at a R&AW station in Damascus or Hague in early 1990s by a lady case officer of the CIA.
“We always believed that he was not a walk-in for the CIA given his affluent background. Singh was perhaps honey-trapped and his recruitment was a long-drawn process. He was carefully trained by the CIA to transmit documents without contacting the handlers, and when he returned from a foreign posting, similar arrangements continued, though he used to frequently travel to Nepal, most likely for secret rendezvous with CIA agents and to receive payments. Unlike a few other cases, he was never caught on tape meeting his handler or making a delivery. After his escape, the subsequent investigation had revealed that the money was also delivered to his children at the US by the CIA officers. Disproportionate assets were also discovered and it became a known fact that Rabinder amassed huge wealth while working with R&AW,” sources said.
Singh continued harvesting intelligence from fellow spies and shipped it to his handler at CIA head office at Langley, Virginia after his return from a foreign posting. His activities were monitored by the R&AW’s Counter Intelligence and Security Division (CIS) after he came under suspicion of being a mole for the CIA in December 2003. The CIS wired his office and Defence Colony residence in January 2004, which revealed Singh was collecting intelligence from different sources at the agency and passing it on to the CIA. During the 4-month long surveillance, Singh was allegedly tipped off about the noose tightening around him, and the CIA is said to have plotted his escape.
According to sources, Rabinder Singh fled India in the wee hours of 1 May 2004 in his friend’s car and crossed over to Nepal. He was facilitated by the then CIA operative in Nepal David Vacala, who now works for a Florida-based intelligence and defence services training company. Vacala made a mistake by booking hotel rooms in Nepalganj in his own name and subsequently, flight tickets purchased for Rabinder Singh and his wife were also billed to his address at the US embassy in Kathmandu. Singh and his wife were put up at a CIA safe house and meanwhile, two US passports in the name of Rajpal Prasad Sharma and Deepa Kumar Sharma were issued for their safe evacuation on 7 May, 2004. Once they landed at Washington airport, a CIA operative whisked the couple away, bypassing the immigration counter. Temporary IDs were provided, completely erasing their original identity.
The R&AW chief mounted pressure on the CIA, and its station chief in India was summoned. Although he feigned complete ignorance about the Rabinder Singh episode, the R&AW shared evidence, including photocopies of fake passports, travel bills in the name of Vacala and imprints of some images that Rabinder Singh was said to have wired to the CIA using secure file transfer protocol. The forensic examination of his two laptops had revealed that Rabinder may have shipped over 20,000 files to the CIA. The American intelligence officials denied the allegations. Months after his escape, an application for asylum in the US was filed by one Surender Jeet Singh, claiming to be a former R&AW agent. Back at the agency headquarters, R&AW officers believed that Surender was none other than Rabinder. His application was turned down by the immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals, arguing that the facts stated by him were not credible. He subsequently filed an appeal against the order at US Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, California. Although a circuit judge reversed the earlier rulings, directing the board to re-examine his case, an indifferent stand by the CIA halted further legal proceedings.
Inside Spy Game
During the investigation, 57 R&AW officers, including some from the top ranks, were found to be regularly sharing information with Rabinder Singh. A post-mortem in the case revealed that about two dozen officers had actively colluded with him in leaking the intelligence to Langley. No action was taken against the officers and they were quietly transferred to insignificant stations, to live with the burden of sharing top secret notes with the traitor, who sold them to the CIA.
The audio-video tapes of surveillance had also revealed Singh’s conflicting personality, as he was found to be preaching moral values to his children through hundreds of phone conversations he had with children studying in the US. At the agency headquarters, R&AW Chief CD Sahay defended the surveillance and subsequent investigation, despite whispers that one of his predecessors was frequently meeting Singh and he might have consciously provided classified information to Singh. His escape was followed by intense debate in the media and within the intelligence community about the damages his betrayal might have caused. Many R&AW spies posted abroad were transferred, due to the fear that Singh may have revealed the names of undercover agents abroad to the American intelligence agency. Some crucial sources were dropped from the list. The Indian government's effort to arrest and extradite Singh was abandoned in 2007. The US government never acknowledged the presence of its valuable recruit Rabinder Singh on its soil.
A section within the intelligence community believed that then National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra dragged his feet over the arrest after Sahay informed him that Singh was a CIA mole. Mishra, according to sources, did nothing and the CIA pulled off a spying coup and prevented its network getting exposed. However, Singh’s treachery was not rewarded. In the ruthless profession of espionage, Rabinder Singh no longer had tactical value for his controllers. The infamous spy, who often quoted religious scriptures, lived and died carrying the darkest sins of betraying his motherland.
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