Indo-US co-operation in counter-terrorism has the following components:
• Assistance in capacity building in traditional counter-terrorism: Started in the early 1980s during the administration of Ronald Reagan when some officers of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) were sent initially to the UK and then to the US for training in matters like dealing with hostage situations. Aviation security to prevent and deal with hijacking was an important initial area of US assistance in capacity-building. This has since expanded to cover other areas such as forensic examination of explosive devices.
• Assistance in capacity-building in non-traditional areas: Started in 2001 during the administration of George Bush at the initiative of Richard Armitage, the then US Deputy Secretary of State. Cyber security was the initial area of US assistance. This was extended to other areas such as maritime security in ports and container vessels, prevention of catastrophic acts of terrorism involving the use of weapons of mass destruction material etc.
• Assistance in strengthening the physical security of vulnerable establishments and sectors such as urban transport: Started during the administration of George Bush after the explosions in some Mumbai suburban trains in July,2006.
• Mutual legal assistance in the investigation and prosecution of terrorism cases: Started during the second term of Ronald Reagan when the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was sought by India for the investigation of the assassination of Gen.A.S.Vaidya, retired Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), by some Khalistani terrorists in Pune in 1985. The co-operation declined during the administration of Bill Clinton. The US agencies were only partly helpful when their assistance was sought in the investigation and prosecution of the Mumbai blasts of March,1993. The co-operation has improved under the George Bush and Barack Obama Administrations. Under the Obama Administration, the FBI was helpful in the forensic examination of the intercepts during the 26/11 terrorist strikes. For the first time, FBI officers testified before the trial court through video-conferencing. In the past, the FBI's policy was not to allow its officers to testify before an Indian court.
• Intelligence-sharing: This is the most unsatisfactory aspect of Indo-US counter-terrorism co-operation. Before 26/11, the US had hardly ever shared with India any worthwhile preventive intelligence. However, in 2008, during the Bush Administration, the FBI was reported to have passed on to Indian agencies three fairly specific bits of information about the plans of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) to launch a sea-borne attack on some seafront establishments in Mumbai including the Taj Mahal hotel. This information cannot by any means be described as vague or non-specific. If the Indian agencies had promptly acted in strengthening physical security as a follow-up to this, 26/11 might have been prevented. Despite this instance, intelligence-sharing from the US has generally been unsatisfactory due to the following reasons. Firstly, the large, prosperous and politically active Sikh community in the US prevented their Governments from co-operating fully with the Government of India in dealing with Khalistani terrorism. Secondly, all US administrations have as a matter of policy refrained from sharing with India intelligence relating to terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir. Thirdly, the US agencies are allowed to share with India only preventive intelligence relating to planned acts of terrorism by jihadi organisations in Indian territory outside J&K. Here too, the agencies are required to share the intelligence in such a manner as not to implicate Pakistan and not to add substance to India's case against Pakistan for the sponsorship of terrorism in Indian territory. There have been exceptions to this such as the reported US warning to India about a planned terrorist strike against the Indian Embassy in Kabul by terrorist elements instigated by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). So long as the US continues to attach importance to counter-terrorism co-operation from Pakistan for dealing with the situation in Afghanistan, its intelligence-sharing with India and co-operation with India against Pakistan will be half-hearted.
• Mutual assistance in the interrogation of arrested terrorist suspects, sharing of the produce of the interrogation and opportunities for the examination of captured documents: Another highly-unsatisfactory area of co-operation due to the US keenness to protect Pakistan from the consequences of its using terrorism against India. It was reported that after the US troops entered Kabul in 2001, the US response to Indian requests for the interrogation of some suspects and for the examination of some documents relating to the Kandahar hijacking of 1999 was unsatisfactory. So was its much-delayed response to Indian requests for the prompt interrogation of David Coleman Headley of the Chicago cell of the LET who had visited India five times for collecting targeting information for the LET. While the FBI did share with India information relating to the planned terrorist strikes in Mumbai (the dates were not known), it did not share with India collateral information which might have enabled India to unearth the LET network in India. Fears that if it shared the collateral information with India, its agencies might arrest and interrogate Headley thereby exposing his links with the US agencies seem to have stood in the way of this sharing. The recently reported disclosures of two ex-wives of Headley----one living in the US and the other in Pakistan---about their alerting an FBI Task Force in New York and the US Embassy in Islamabad regarding Headley’s terrorist links with the LET could have embarrassing legal consequences for the US Government. The LET was designated by the US State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) under US laws in 2000. It is criminal for any US national to maintain contacts with an FTO or to assist it in any way. The alerts of the two ex-wives showed that Headley had violated US laws relating to contacts with an FTO. He should have been immediately detained, investigated and prosecuted. The FBI did not do so. He continued to maintain his contacts with the LET and we have an instance of an American national helping an FTO in killing some US nationals in Mumbai without the FBI taking any action to stop this. If the relatives of the Americans killed in Mumbai take the State Department, the US Embassy in Islamabad and the FBI to court for this, they could face difficulty in defending themselves.
2. Before 2000, there was no institutional mechanism for facilitating and co-ordinating Indo-US co-operation. The co-operation was handled informally at the level of the intelligence and investigative agencies of the two countries. During their meeting in London in January 2000, Jaswant Singh, the then Indian Foreign Minister, and Strobe Talbot, the then US Deputy Secretary of State, agreed to set up an institutional mechanism in the form of the Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism. This was followed by the setting up of an Indo-US Cyber Security Forum as suggested by Armitage in 2002. The Forum ran into controversy following Indian suspicions that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had misused it for penetrating the National Security Council Secretariat. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington DC in November last year, the two countries launched what was described as a Joint Counter-Terrorism Initiative to strengthen counter-terrorism co-operation in different fields such as forensics, megacity policing etc. This was formalized into a Memo of Understanding in July,2010. It is not clear which institution co-ordinates and monitors its implementation. The Headley case illustrates deficiencies in its implementation.
3. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, India and the UK set up what was called Indo-UK Back Channel For Counter-Terrorism Co-operation, which at that time was mainly directed against Khalistani terrorists. This consisted of hot lines connecting the chiefs of the intelligence agencies of the two countries and periodic co-ordination meetings between the counter-terrorism experts of the countries. It worked very well because the trust level between the Indian and British agencies was high.
4. The trust level between the Indian and US agencies leaves much to be desired. The US anxiety to protect Pakistan adds to the distrust. How to improve the trust level and what should be the institutional mechanism for improving co-operation are important questions which should be discussed by our Prime Minister and President Obama during their forthcoming meeting in New Delhi next month. ( 20-10-10)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )