Thursday, October 06, 2005

Truth beyond the archive (October 7, 2005)

A public inquiry into Mitrokhin's disclosures would be helpful

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is habitual for the Opposition to make exaggerated demands on the Government of the day, and equally routine for ministers to reject them peremptorily. Yet, it was singularly discourteous of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to, first, disregard a joint letter on The Mitrokhin Archive disclosures from Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Leaders of Opposition from both Houses of Parliament and, then, organise an uninformed media response by the Minister of State for Home Affairs S.P.Jaiswal. In view of the grave charges of KGB penetration into the Government, intelligence agencies, politics and media of the country, particularly in the 1970s, the BJP leaders pressed for a public inquiry. In the first official reaction to the disclosures, Jaiswal claimed that the BJP indignation was “devoid of merit.” Echoing the Congress spokesman’s charge of unsubstantiated “sensationalism” levelled against Vasili Mitrokhin, the Minister said that the Government was not expected to take note of every allegation by retired spooks.

Despite Jaiswal’s misplaced bluntness, the Government’s response fits a pattern. From the day extracts from The Mitrokhin Archive-II began appearing in the media, nervous Congressmen and Communists have been consciously trying to equate the disclosures with some of the more incredible tell-all memoirs of defectors and ex-spies. The voluble CPI leader A.B. Bardhan, for example, called the book a “spy thriller” and the Congress spokesman even suggested that it “should not be dignified by (a) reaction.” To add to the volley of trivialisation, a retired intelligence officer conveniently revealed that two leaders of the erstwhile Jana Sangh held “secret” meetings with a KGB agent at Wengers, once a favourite meeting point for Delhi politicians. The CPI(M) too fleetingly entered the battle screaming libel, and then quietly withdrawing when it dawned on its leaders that it was actually the KGB which had sullied the late Promode Das Gupta’s reputation by painting him as an IB informer.

While it is compelling to suggest that there is little point in raking up the past, now that the Soviet Union is itself history, it would be a mistake to view Mirokhin’s disclosures as yet another motivated and unsubstantiated leak. First, unlike the spy hunts that routinely arouse Cold War nostalgia in the West, The Mitrokhin Archive is not based either on intelligent deductions or casual reminiscences of retired George Smileys. Mitrokhin, who defected to the UK in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was not personally involved in the KGB operations he has described. He was an archivist who had unique access to all the KGB files, including the identities of moles, sleepers and informers. For more than a decade, he made copious notes in longhand from the files and, when the opportunity presented itself, passed these on to the British MI6. The Mitrokhin Archive is the closest approximation to a history of the KGB, as seen through the organisation’s own records. Its importance is stupendous.

Second, although Mitrokhin was personally anxious to secure the publication of all the material he smuggled out of the erstwhile USSR, the British Government was more circumspect. Realising the explosive nature of its contents and its likely consequences, it evolved a rigid criterion to determine what should be published and what should be left unsaid. Malcolm Rifkind, the Home Secretary in John Major’s government decreed that “The names of people the KGB had targeted for recruitment or attempted to influence could not be made public unless they had been prosecuted or convicted or they had agreed to the release of their names.” Rifkind was particularly insistent that it was not up to the intelligence agencies “to decide whether or not names should be revealed.” He also made it clear that this “did not apply to British names.”

The decision to impose political control over the publication of the Mitrokhin archive was subsequently upheld by a June 2000 report of the Intelligence and Security Committee of the House of Commons, chaired by Tom King. The King Report specified that the release of details would be undertaken in a “controlled manner” and that “none would be published without Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Security Service clearance.” An inter-departmental working group under Whitehall’s Intelligence Coordinator was established and it ensured that “the policy on the exclusion of certain categories of information from the book was complied with.”

The predictable dismay among readers that The Mitrokhin Archive names only those who are dead is understandable. However, that is not because Mitrokhin’s notes were patchy. The names of those who helped the KGB in the past and who continue to play a role in public life have been carefully omitted for diplomatic reasons. The British Government, it would seem, was anxious to ensure that it was discreetly detached from a publication that is for all practical purposes an official publication.

Yet, the agonised soul-searching in Whitehall does convey a powerful message. It implies that the carefully vetted details which were found suitable for publication bear an official stamp of authenticity. For an Indian Minister to describe the The Mitrokhin Archive as a series of baseless claims is an act of puerile evasion.

In pressing for a public inquiry, whether in the form of a Joint Parliamentary Committee or a specialist investigation like the one that followed the Kargil war, it is instructive to read British Home Secretary Jack Straw’s statement to the Commons on October 21, 1999. “Thousands of leads from Mr Mitrokhin’s material have been followed up world-wide”, he said. “As a result our intelligence agencies in cooperation with allied Governments have been able to put a stop to many security threats. Many unsolved investigations have been closed; many earlier suspicions confirmed; and some names and reputations have been cleared. Our intelligence and security agencies have assessed the value of Mr Mitrokhin’s material worldwide as immense.”

There is absolutely no ground for believing that what is true for the West isn’t true for an India which was described by Mitrokhin as “the easiest country for KGB operatives to penetrate.” What needs to be investigated is not merely the lavish funding of the Communist Party and its fellow-travellers. Mitrokhin has underlined the broad contours of the subversion of India’s intelligence agencies, the diplomatic service and the media. As an emerging global power, India cannot be unmindful of the disastrous consequences of a rotten inheritance.

Is a public inquiry feasible? More important, can such an inquiry go beyond what has already been published?

The answer to both questions is a categorical Yes. Britain may have been loath to make all the details provided by Mitrokhin public but it has indicated its willingness to share, in a “proper and controlled manner”, additional information with “liaison partners”, a euphemism for intelligence agencies of friendly countries. Indeed, there is enough reason to believe that some of this information was supplied to Indian intelligence during the time the NDA was in power. If not, the British Government has kept open the possibility of sharing much more of what Mitrokhin revealed as a part of “reciprocal exchanges of information between liaison partners.” India and Britain share extremely cordial relations and there is an institutionalised arrangement of intelligence sharing. The Government cannot proceed on the a priori assumption that Britain will not oblige Indian requests for more information.

In a sense, it all depends on the UPA Government’s sincerity in pursuing an inquiry that could well show up its Left allies in very poor light. With the right measure of political will and diplomatic adroitness, The Mitrokhin Archive could pave the way for an overhaul of India’s national security.

(Published in The Telegraph, October 7, 2005)

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