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The shadowy world of espionage

Written by Vikram Sood

Published : Saturday, 8 September, 2018 at 12:00 AM  Count : 839
Reviewed by Vappala Balachandran

The shadowy world of espionage

The shadowy world of espionage

The Unending Game by former R&AW chief Vikram Sood is a low-profile but solid contribution to the study of intelligence as a tool for formulating security policy in India and elsewhere.

Writers on intelligence face two problems. First, intelligence is a low-profile job where there is no place for dabanggs. Stella Rimington, MI5's first woman chief, had famously said that "the best and most successful spies are the quiet, apparently boring and dull people". But readers expect them to reflect Ian Fleming's 'Bond' stories. Second, even retired intelligence officers resent it when such books do not highlight drama. Allen Dulles had said that the legendary British Second World War SOE (Special Operations Executives) "who set Europe ablaze" were agitated by the "staid and sober" official history by their military historian, whereas the media had glorified them.
The Unending Game by former R&AW chief Vikram Sood is a low-profile but solid contribution to the study of intelligence as a tool for formulating security policy in India and elsewhere. It is not a vainglorious memoir, as is often seen nowadays, but an enthralling book on the history and problems of intelligence collection, interpretation and follow-up. His prodigious collection of relevant facts has resulted in the book having elements of mystery and sensation. It would also incite the readers to think of the myriad future challenges in the realm of national security and intelligence in a complex "wired world".

Sood has eloquently explained the value of intelligence in the first chapter. As the security situation is deteriorating all over the world, armament manufacturers are enticing affected countries by introducing advanced warning systems and weaponry. But developing countries are unable to purchase such arsenals due to prohibitive costs.

In December 2017, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence had criticised the NDA government for poor allocations in the 2017-18 budget for military modernisation. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, while addressing R&AW officers in the 1980s, had anticipated such situations and called upon them to meet this challenge through timely advance intelligence on foreign threats, which would be much less expensive.

The third chapter is about the CIA-KGB battles. Sood says the KGB was able to outsmart western intelligence services by infiltrating the core western decision-makers, but suffered setbacks when the Soviet decisionmakers ignored intelligence. This is quite right. A 1997 Yale University study, which produced a book, Battleground Berlin, had said: "They won battle after battle but lost the war. Rarely did Stalin receive information that he might not like."

Chapter 4 presents a comparison of intelligence agencies in 'Asian Playing Fields' where Sood has described the ISI's clout. Again, I am reminded of what Rajiv Gandhi had told us about his talk with Yasser Arafat, who conveyed to him after his Pakistan visit that they were more afraid of R&AW than the Indian Army! ISI chief Hamid Gul had frankly told R&AW chief A.K. Verma in the 1980s that Pakistan was supporting terrorism as a low-cost warfare since they were afraid of India's might.

Sood has done well in describing the paranoia that is developing all over the world as a result of the proliferation of social media and consequent electronic eavesdropping by governments, business leaders and private individuals. It has also created a new business model of 'outsourcing' intelligence collection to private bodies and retaliatory 'privatising' of terror tasks by certain countries like Pakistan.

In Chapter 11, the author has emphasised the importance of avoiding a revolving door culture in R&AW for manning key posts as "each rookie will drift to greener pastures midstream, taking away with him years of experience".

The reviewer is former special secretary, cabinet division of India.

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