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January 3, 2018

Tales of espionage


January 3, 2018

The year 2017 ended with a bleak prospect for sustainable peace, stability and security in South Asia. It was particularly deadly for the hapless citizens of Afghanistan who have witnessed unabated violence and destruction in the country during the previous year.

Pak-India relations remained troublesome as well and the issue of Kulbhushan Jadhav has brought diplomatic ties between the two nuclear-armed neighbours to a standstill. This was further exacerbated by the jingoistic rhetoric advanced by some politicians who were regrettably from across the border.

In almost all cases related to charges of espionage and sabotage, there is a unique modus operandi that is followed by the accused party. Once spies or suspects are held alive with extremely precious sources of information, the country or government for which they work either straightforwardly denies any link with such individuals or the country in question starts a vehement counter-narrative to dispel the impression that their citizen was involved in any such activities.

In some cases, the accused party comes up with bizarre clarifications. However, in the world of realpolitik, the truth does not always matter in the face of a strong propaganda – even though the truth is the ultimate winner in the long run when things take their natural course.

We must highlight some high-level cases of espionage or other suspicious activities perpetrated by the likes of Raymond Davis, Gary Powers and Jonathan Pollard. As in the case of Kulbhushan Jadhav, in almost all these cases the respective individuals (and, of course, their governments) were caught with their pants down.

Still fresh in our memory is the case of Raymond Davis. On January 27, 2011, he shot dead two Pakistanis on a busy road in broad daylight in Lahore. After his arrest, Davis claimed that he had fired in self-defence as the two deceased persons riding a motorbike were about to rob him at gunpoint. On January 28, the US Embassy in Islamabad issued a press release stating that a staff member of US Consulate General in Lahore was involved in “an incident”. The next day, the US Embassy changed or refined its earlier stance and claimed that the arrested American was a diplomat assigned to the US Embassy in Islamabad.

The Americans altered their earlier stance and described Davis an employee of the embassy owing to two international law instruments: the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963. The US modified its earlier statement as it wanted to invoke diplomatic immunity that was privileged under the 1961 treaty as there was no such privilege under the treaty dealing with consular relations. Pakistan was, therefore, asked to release Raymond Davis from ‘illegal detention’ as he was entitled to diplomatic immunity.

Contrary to the official stance adopted by the US, it was a fact – even tacitly acknowledged by certain American authorities at the time – that Davis was not a diplomat. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC), a well-known US media network, revealed in an investigative report that the arrested killer was an employee of Hyperion Protective Consultants, a Florida-based private security company. Some Pakistani media outlets reported that a global positioning system (GPS), a digital camera with pictures of sensitive places, mobile phones, face masks and more than 80 bullets were recovered from Davis.

It is relevant to quote an extract from the London-based Daily Telegraph that had raised quite a few pertinent questions: “And for America, the case risks revealing many awkward truths. Who exactly is Raymond Davis, described by the US as a member of “technical and administrative staff”? What sort of “diplomat” [sic] carries a weapon? What was he doing driving alone through Lahore? Was he actually working for a private military contractor, Hyperion? Was he meeting an informer?”

Similarly, various relevant questions have been raised in the case of Jadhav and why he had a fake passport bearing a Muslim name. While he has also confessed to committing numerous crimes and acts of sabotage – according to the Pakistani authorities – India has come up with a different narrative, which is incredibly fallacious on many accounts.

Another incident is that of the CIA’s U-2 Spy Plane involving Gary Powers, an American pilot whose plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in the Soviet Union’s airspace. On May 1, 1960, the American pilot’s U-2A plane departed from Badabher military airbase in Peshawar. It was to be the first attempt “to fly all the way across the Soviet Union...but it was considered worth the gamble…traversing important targets [that were] never before photographed”. When targeted, Powers was unable to activate the plane’s self-destruct mechanism before he was thrown out of the aircraft after releasing the canopy and his seat belt.

The US soon learned of the disappearance of Gary Powers over the Soviet Union. They issued a cover statement that claimed a “weather plane” had strayed off course after its pilot had “difficulties with his oxygen equipment”. Ironically, the CIA officials were not aware that the “plane crashed almost fully intact and the Soviets recovered its equipment”. Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB for several months before he made a confession and a public apology for his role in espionage as the ominous clouds of the cold war were hovering over South Asia – the perils of which are still felt.

Referring to this incident in his book, ‘The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power’, Tariq Ali writes: “When the US denied the spy flights, the Russians produced the poor pilot. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, entertaining General Maxwell Taylor at a banquet in Moscow, reportedly clambered onto the table in a rage and shouted ...”.

Another interesting example is that of Jonathan Pollard, a US navy official who was caught red-handed in 1985. In 1987, Pollard pleaded guilty, as part of a plea agreement, to spying for and providing top-secret classified information to Israel. He was sentenced to life in prison for violating the Espionage Act and was the only American who was handed a life sentence for passing classified information to a US ally. Israeli officials, American-Israeli activist groups and some American politicians who saw his punishment as unfair lobbied continually for the reduction or commutation of his sentence. The Israeli government acknowledged a portion of its role in Pollard’s espionage in 1987 and issued a formal apology to the US. While Israel had initially distanced itself from Pollard, he was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995. Several US officials opposed any form of clemency. They argued that the damage to national security owing to Pollard’s espionage was “far more severe, wide-ranging, and enduring” than publicly acknowledged. Israel consistently used official and unofficial channels to secure Pollard’s release, which came about on November 20, 2015.

The plans of spies and enemy states to achieve their perceived national interests are mysterious and strange. Instead of finding a modus vivendi, they dedicate their resources and energies in strategic gambits of zero-sum games where there are hardly any tangible gains and clear victors.

The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the German Development Institute at Bonn, Germany.

Email: [email protected]

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