Rivalry With ISI Is An Exaggeration: Former RAW Chief Vikram Sood

Video Editor: Prashant Chauhan

Camerapersons: Abhay Sharma, Shiv Kumar

“Ultimately in this game, you are alone.”

Vikram Sood, former chief of Research and Analysis Wing or “RAW” – as the subcontinent knows the Indian intelligence agency – says ponderously. ‘The Unending Game,’ his debut book, is yet to be formally released but has already been hailed as an invaluable treatise on the craft of espionage.

In an exclusive interaction with The Quint, Sood sheds light on the world of spies. Following is the select transcript of this interview which, obviously, begins with Ek Tha Tiger, Bollywood’s most successful spy franchise:

Salman Khan in a scene from Ek Tha Tiger

(VS): I saw Ek Tha Tiger for fun.

(NG): Was it fun?

Yeah, it reminds me of James Bond. And the best thing was that our man got the ISI woman! Yeah, that was the best thing.

(NG): Has it ever happened that our man or our woman got the ISI man or woman?

(VS): I haven’t heard of that. They are all make-believe stories.

Reality of the RAW-ISI Relationship

(NG): There’s this constant tussle, at least in the minds of people, that ISI and R&AW are constantly at each other’s heads and trying to out-manoeuvre the other

(VS): I think it’s exaggerated. In the world of espionage we don’t gloat over another man’s failure. It’s professional. I’m playing a game, I’m playing soccer with you, it’s my goal. I scored it. You don’t make enemies out of that.

Former RAW chief Amarjit Dulat and ex-ISI Directorate head Asad Durrani’s ‘Spy Chronicles’ breaks the narrative meme of writing on espionage.

(NG): But you do make friends?

(VS): We make friends, yes.

(NG): Yes?

(VS): We do. After all, you find the Army generals of India and Pakistan quite chummy at times. Hamaare yahaan bhi aisa hi hota hai (It’s the same with us in the spy agencies).

(NG): Does it also involve conflict of interest, too, then?

(VS): Of course. There is conflict of interest also.

(NG): How does one overcome that?

(VS): You either break the relationship or side-step. Or you tell him, “No more! This, I won’t do”.

(NG): Anything that goes wrong in Pakistan and the first thing is: R&AW has done this.

(VS): Yes. That’s nice. I like it. It’s part of the game. How you want to portray the enemy. So, I think a larger-than-life image is good.

(NG): It works very well?

(VS): Hmm…

(NG): We are very curious to know the kind of relationship that you have in a third country.

(VS): Actually it’s quite a normal existence. If you get to know he’s from the other agency, it’s alright. We don’t run away from each other.

(NG): But how do you get to know that? They don’t wear a red shirt, how do you figure that out?

(VS): Pata chal jata hai. (We get to know.) If a man is seen at all functions, wherever you go, same guy! He has to be an intelligence operative.

Recruiting A Spy

(NG): In a country where you would otherwise not have access to certain information, recruiting people there, how does that work?

(VS): It’s all a game of fishing. You are on a fishing expedition as it were. You know the area you want to cover. You try and see who are the people who are working there. You find out their addresses, you do homework before that. All sorts of homework.

You try and find out which club he visits, which is the bar he goes to, where does he shop.

You do a lot of recce of a prospective target. It’s not like buying Colgate toothpaste in a market or an L1 or L2 that the lowest rate is the best. No, it doesn’t work like that.

You are going into a hostile territory. You are working against the law of that country. You are going to suborn a good man to become a spy. He is scared. He has to have enough reasons to do that. Or, you should have the ability to convince him that he has a reason.

That process is part of recruitment and it takes time.

(NG): What kind of desperation would you put on top of the list? Like, if this person has trouble with A, B or C, then he or she would be more inclined to cooperate with you.

(VS): Both kinds of people exist. One is the ideological personal who will do anything for ideology. ‘The Cambridge Five’ were ideological spies. It’s not as if this is the best one or that category is the best one but the guy who’s in the need of money is easier to recruit.

‘The Cambridge Five’

(NG): As happened in the case of John Walker.

(VS): Yes. John Walker was monetary, he was greedy, he wanted money. He couldn’t restrain himself and he showed off that money and he got caught out.

Dealing With Defection

(NG): It’s like a double-edged sword because whichever side gives him a better deal, he would switch.

(VS): That happens. It’s part of the game. Many a time you find that the agent is working for this side and that side. Both sides. For him it’s also survival.

(NG): Can you sometime pre-empt that an agent is actually going to flip to the other side?

(VS): It happens. You get to know that he’s playing double. The questions he asks you sometimes; the replies he gives to your questions- you get an idea that he’s not playing level with us. Then you start feeding him. Then he goes and feeds them.

(NG): It’s only the rogue spies that we come to know of. We don’t get to know of good spies.

(VS): No, you’ll never come to know of good spies. We don’t want to talk about our successes because these are all related to our neighbourhood, essentially.

Indian intelligence official Rabinder Singh defected to the US. 

We, unfortunately, get known by our failures.

(NG): Is this about perception, how what people think is the reality of the world of espionage is actually not the reality? Is that your attempt: to set certain things straight once and for all?

(VS): That is essentially the attempt. To tell the reader how the real world of espionage works. And it is not what they normally see in novels or on screen.

(NG): In the mind of a reader or a viewer, is this outlandishly glamourous world where a perfect spy can fly a plane &, like Daniel Craig, can run miles without breaking into sweat, and he can kill, he can make love, he can order a martini! Is the world of espionage somewhat glamourous, at least? Please don’t tell me that it’s not, it will be heart-breaking.

(VS): There are glamourous moments in life, so also in espionage. And there are moments of solid truth.

(NG): Editor’s Pick- Chief’s Pick, the Poster Boys of the world of espionage.

(VS): Richard Sorge was one, the name pronounced was Richard Sorge. He spied for the Germans, he spied for the Soviets, he spied for the Japanese. And he was the man who told Stalin that Hitler was going to attack in June.

Richard Sorge told Stalin that Hitler was going to attack in June.

Obviously Philby ranks very high. That’s a given.

Kim Philby, a British intelligence officer who spied for the Soviets was one of the ‘Cambridge Five’. 

And there was this Israeli spy, Pollard. He was a naval spy and he was doing it against a friendly country so that makes him one of them.

(NG): James Bond!

(VS): Oh yeah! James Bond and Gabriel Allon.

(NG): What about women in the agencies? The role that they play because in the fiction that we read the femme fatales

(VS): We have women officers who work like other officers, that’s it. We don’t have women ‘agents’ running around. We have mostly men working for us, mostly male agents.

(NG): But, every once in a while, we get to hear reports about how our officials from the army or bureaucracy get ‘honey-trapped’ by agents from the other side.

(VS): Yeah, the other side maybe using them. They may be using it, or our men first get trapped and then they are used later.

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