Intelligence and Counterintelligence: The Games Nations Play

by Syed Ata Hasnain - Oct 29, 2016 01:51 PM +05:30 IST

Intelligence and Counterintelligence: The Games Nations Play

A BSF jawan (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)
  • In the ongoing confrontation along the Line of Control, what is the kind of intelligence which both India and Pakistan attempt to gather about each other? How do they do it? Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd) provides the answer here.

With ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan, I am often asked about spy networks, intelligence gathering and the gory details of espionage. It seems people see too many thrillers and draw their deductions from there. Yet, given the fact that the Pakistan High Commission has a great track record of having its staffers caught indulging in undesirable activities, as has happened in the last few days. It is worth knowing what this game is all about. These are games all nations play.

The intelligence game is one of the oldest that human beings indulge in; the game of assessing the rival’s intent. The human mind is not transparent and no one can ascertain what exactly it is thinking at a given moment, the immediate future or the long term. Curiosity forces adoption of various methods to get that insight. When individuals who are not on best terms indulge in this exercise, devious methods are designed to obtain information, which can give indicators to the rival’s mind. When nations are unfriendly they cross all limits to ensure that they are well informed about what possibly goes on in the leadership’s mind of the other nation, the adversary so to say. This is what spying is all about and it is not limited to the romantic idea of the Second World War or Cold War espionage.

The modern world gives the means of technology to snoop on the adversary and pick up snippets of information. The internet itself is a source of such leaks; WikiLeaks made that famous. Spy satellites, drones and micro birds, which can penetrate and emplace themselves inside offices of the adversary, are all means of technology, which enable the gathering of information and relaying it to the place where it is needed (watch the outstanding film Eye in the Sky on YouTube). Despite all advances in technology, the most reliable source of inputs for intelligence remain the human ear and eye. That is the reason why the plain old game of spying will probably never end.

For the layman, it is important to know that information is not intelligence. The latter is only available when the information is sifted, analysed and processed through a procedure, which in military jargon is called the intelligence cycle.  In other words, intelligence is usually not processed from just one piece of information unless the source is absolutely authentic and foolproof. Usually intelligence organisations rely on multiple sources for inputs. In intelligence jargon these are called ‘straws in the wind’. The straws, like information, are flying around. You have to try and catch them but that is not enough because to make any sense from the straws of information, you have to synthesise them, piece them together and create a full stick, a coherent picture of what the future course of events could possibly be.

The currently reported involvement in espionage of Pakistani diplomats from the visa section of the Pakistan High Commission is not something new. In the prevailing situation, the activity by such spies increases and therefore the chances of discovery. This is what has happened in the last two days.  Nations do have a degree of control on the acceptance of staff at diplomatic missions. The numbers are laid down and each individual case is processed for acceptance, keeping available information on the individual in mind. The agreement to approve a case may take even up to a year or more. Sometimes nations may even permit a known spy handler to be a part of the mission of the adversary nation, only in order to bust the network he would potentially be handling.

Both India and Pakistan have been deeply involved in the game of espionage ever since Independence.  In the wake of the Uri incident and the surgical strikes by India, the temperature along the borders and LoC has increased. India much less, but Pakistan much more, perceive military threats and wish to remain in the intelligence loop so that they are not surprised. India’s concern of course lies in the realm of a surprise attack by Pakistan-based terror groups backed by the deep state to make a statement of retribution against India’s surgical strikes.

The public needs to remember a few things about the game of espionage and intelligence. Pakistan has a large commitment of its troops on the western border, involved in counter insurgency operations ever since 2007. These troops will need to rush back to their deployment areas on the Indo-Pak border or LoC if threats from India are perceived. India’s change of strategy ever since 2002 (Op PARAKRAM) wherein it adopted the pro-active strategy (formerly Cold Start) to commence offensive operations earliest when needed has given Pakistan the shivers. The latter was used to the good old norms of responsive strategy by India where the initiative always lay with Pakistan. Now it is important for Pakistan to keep ascertaining the moves by Indian Army formations and units more than ever before. This is all the more important because the Indian Army’s mobilisation procedures have been much more refined and the period drastically reduced since the days of Op PARAKRAM in 2001-2002. Pakistan, therefore, indulges in a variety of practices to exploit human sourced intelligence (HUMINT) from within India. A network of spies exists around cantonment areas of all three services, Army, Navy and Air Force, whose resources have to be mobilised in the event of conflict. The change of locations of units and formations remains of deep interest to the Pakistan military.

Moving on training is another activity they monitor with the fear that such units could be mobilising instead of training. Passage of such information has been greatly facilitated by internet-backed social media. However, obtaining an odd document of value is considered the prize in this sordid game, which is why contacts take place between handlers and human sources. These exercises are usually vulnerable and Indian sleuths have been successful most times in apprehending such exchanges.

For espionage games to succeed networks have to be established and sources that may appear innocuous could be cultivated. A vegetable vendor or a grocery store owner near a cantonment area could be tasked by the adversary to keep an eye on the strength of units, move out of families or purchase of bulk food items by officer messes. Even such innocuous issues can add up to provide intelligence once the information is synthesised and analysed.

Public awareness of the existence of adversary networks is important so that even inadvertently innocent people do not fall prey to machinations. People living near or in cantonment areas may find mobile calls coming to them inquiring about the environment around them, and then focusing on activities of the Army or other organisations. Many of these calls are sourced through the Gulf countries to avoid revealing the Pakistani numerical prefix number. Of much recent interest are the Border Security Force’s activities in North Punjab and along the international border in J&K. If the adversary’s intent is to target a BSF post, it is important for it to confirm whether it has been recently reinforced or not. The BSF, like any other force under arms, restricts its movements in such a way that this type of information is secure, forcing the adversary to attempt using ingenious and unconventional methods of obtaining information.

It is not in tense times that such activities occur. The game of intelligence, which nations indulge in is an ongoing game at most times. The US and its allies are adept at this as much as Russia is. The intelligence agencies of these countries are well known but for us the most important organisation is the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, Pakistan’s main intelligence organisation, which gained much experience during the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan in the eighties. It continues its devious game against India uninterruptedly.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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