There are few who can resist spy stories, or the escapades of the never-say-die Mr Bond. Nor can any of us resist a peek into the world of intelligence, when it is offered up in the form of a book by an author who has not just headed the country’s external intelligence agency, but also spent some 31 years in its dark innards. The Unending Game by Vikram Sood is a book to be read with care. The most delicious parts are hidden across its 269 pages, which cover some of the most exciting aspects of intelligence failures and successes. Speed reading in not recommended. Get a highlighter instead.
The value of the book is that it combines the virtues of a textbook with the human interest of a novel. In terms of the former, it begins with a chapter on “How spies work” and thereafter deals with the many difficulties that spy masters grapple with. This includes the risks and difficulties in creating a good agent — with the stress on “creation” in almost every way — the “how to” of getting of a source in an enemy country or embassy, and advice on developing that fine sense on how much to pay an intelligence source (paying less is niggardly and unworthy; pay too much, and the source will quite literally manufacture more of the same for your edification). The section outlining the ideal attributes of an intelligence officer are fascinating. One of them is deception, not in terms of stringing a lot of lies together, but the “ability to be different persons to different people”, not an easy task for the unimaginative or unperceptive. Master spy Kim Philby remained British to the core, even while spying successfully for the Soviets for decades. Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin patiently copied out 25,000 pages of documents (to hand over to the British), while working quietly in the Soviet Archives department. The most successful are obviously those who were never found out.
The book is surprisingly nimble in covering not only intelligence lessons from the 1940s to the present, but a phalanx of intelligence agencies of different countries. Thus there is an invaluable chapter on Chinese intelligence, which is so often overlooked in India, in favour of the ubiquitous ISI. The fact that one may merge into the other seems not to have concerned anyone in the government very much. There is an equally fascinating account of “Five Eyes” — an intelligence collaboration between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US — which remained top secret from 1946 till 2010 when the full text of the agreement was published. The Big Five spied on everyone else, and pooled their intelligence in an operation that even the Australian Prime Minister was unaware of. The group spied on people who ranged from John Lennon, Nelson Mandela and US presidential hopefuls. The author notes (almost in a sly aside) that it was the British who first uncovered the Trump- Soviet angle, making this intelligence quintuplet a creature that worked both outwards and inwards. Nobody was spared.
For many of us, the most fascinating sections are likely to be those to do with India and its neighbours. There is a sparkling account of the Pakistan during the time of Zulfikar Bhutto — described as “Uriah Heep in one moment and an arrogant Sindhi feudal lord the next” — and the search for the nuclear bomb. An account of the Abdul Qadir Khan nuclear network follows, and the revelation that a lot of Pakistanis were making a quick buck by selling nuclear technology to countries like Iran and North Korea. There is also the surprising fact that Prime Minister Morarji Desai actually told General Zia that India was well aware of Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions. This led the startled general to clamp down on security, probably leading to a migraine at R&AW. Political leaders are not known to be the most adept at using intelligence, and Desai must rank among the worst.
Then are the anecdotes about Indian intelligence — restricted naturally to those already in the public sphere, or almost. That Chinese intelligence had entrapped a mid-level Indian diplomat some years ago, and that Soviets had at one time so much access into India (particularly the media, such that the phrase “Press Tass of India” became a joke among skeptics), is revealed in the book. More recently, former CIA agent Edward Snowden, who leaked 1.7 million classified files relating to massive US surveillance, was refused asylum in India with the then External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid actually defending the US — despite India being the fifth most scrutinised country in the hierarchy. Either it was sheer ignorance of the extent of the problem, or high diplomacy — or both. Another gem is how US intelligence money — now routed through the National Endowment for Democracy — finally found its way (all $4,00,000 of it) to an NGO called Kabir, run by Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia.
As one of the largest or the most well funded agencies in the world, the CIA gets its share of attention. Many an intelligence head has previously called it the worst intelligence agency in the world, home to some of the worst assessments. The CIA’s inability to predict when the Soviets would first nuclearise, the later debacle in Iraq, and its unstable cooperation with the Pakistanis all rate a caustic mention. Bitterness is however evident in the assessment that India-US intelligence cooperation remains “high on rhetoric and low on delivery”. The late B Raman, who had also served at senior levels in R&AW, would often bemoan the number of times the US was served with stark evidence of Pakistani treachery, and how it was ignored or derided. It took 9/11 to change that perception. Now, the US is everywhere in India. The doors seem to have been flung open. But that’s a political decision.
As befitting an intelligence chief, the author is obviously conversant with the pitfalls and opportunities of discussing intelligence with the leadership. The author observes the political penchant for “instant coffee intelligence” rather than sober, long term effort. One can’t really blame political leaders for this. After all, like the flying ants that come after the rain, they have a definite shelf life. However one can and must blame the bureaucrats who often blur the issue due to a poor or non-existent knowledge of the exigencies of intelligence gathering, and what actually constitutes “national security”. Unlike Pakistan, which has clear and continuous clarity on “India as enemy”, our national security priorities tend to vacillate, and with it, the problems of short term intelligence operations. While the author is understandably cautious on this aspect, one can recollect a certain high-ranking official trashing a 20-year evaluation of India-Pakistan strategy by asking irritably whether the evaluation could be rectified into a three-year assessment. Yet, intelligence-political consultation is an absolute prerequisite, even if it often requires a degree of hard-headedness on the part of the intelligence chief on exactly what he thinks a head of state needs to know. To say that’s difficult is the understatement of the century.
This is a book for the student, for the intelligence skeptic, and for those talking heads on television who pronounce judgement without ever having asked the right questions. It is also for the political leadership, who often fail to see intelligence activity for what it is — continuous, hard, unrelenting work, lit sometimes with an exhilaration that comes from having unearthed that right link, input and assessment. There is no switching on of the stage lights when this happens, but there is a hounding by anyone at all, really anyone, when there is a failure. Intelligence agencies are staffed by those who can make mistakes, and do. But finally, it is an instrument of the state that can be used as well or as badly as the state decides. This book gives you a nice readable opportunity to do just the former, with a nice plate of chips on the side.
The author, who was formerly in the National Security Council Secretariat, tweets @karthatara
Updated Date: Aug 01, 2018 18:52 PM