Intelligence reporting or embedded journalism?

BY AJAZ ASHRAF| IN Media Practice | 30/09/2013
Why do spooks mostly feed us the apple-pie-cold-coffee stories instead of revealing information of the kind Gen Singh disclosed?
Editors must get together to evolve a protocol for covering the intelligence beat says AJAZ ASHRAF

Come to think of it, Gen (retd) VK Singh’s disclosure about the Army paying politicians in Kashmir had all the ingredients for a headline-grabbing, career-defining story which reporters on the intelligence beat would have loved to scoop. Yet, for all the cups of coffee they have had with spooks in plush restaurants – obviously, paid by the latter – and despite their periodic forays into the troubled land of Kashmir, they did not have any clue about the subversion of democracy there, until Gen (retd) Singh, in pique or panic or both, decided to out the truth.  

During the 48 hours Gen (retd) Singh was shooting from his mouth, which was deemed to have severely damaged India’s image abroad, spooks too mounted a special sideshow of their own. Through them we came to know that Yasin Bhatkal, guilty of killing at least a 100, had flown into Pakistan years ago without a visa, that he had told a passenger - with whom he was sharing an auto-rickshaw - about the bomb he had in his bag, and that he had ordered an apple pie and cold coffee in Pune’s German Bakery before leaving the explosive bag under a table.  

Decidedly delicious stories these, yet begging a question: Why do spooks mostly feed us the apple-pie-cold-coffee stories, instead of revealing information of the kind Gen (retd) Singh disclosed? This question tells you a thing or two about those inhabiting the shadowy world of intelligence, and their relationship with journalists. One, there isn’t a whistleblower among our spooks, willing to accord primacy to, say, upholding the ideal of democracy over simply servicing organizational goals. Two, media reporting on intelligence mirrors the ethos of embedded journalism, a term coined to describe journalists who accompanied American army units on their invasion of Iraq in 2003.   

Reporters are embedded in Indian intelligence in the sense their environment is controlled – they report what they are told, or rather dictated, and analyse on the basis of information supplied to them. Perhaps the other name for this brand of journalism is stenography, but then you can argue that a reasonably smart steno at least has the independence to replace ‘is’ with ‘are’ when it should be.  

The problem inherent to the intelligence beat is that more often than not it is impossible to verify what the sources tell you, thus undermining the defining principle of journalism – corroborate and counter-check the stories of narrators who don’t wish to be identified. Who can, for instance, ever check the number of militant camps operating across the Line of Control or in Myanmar or Bangladesh, which was the staple of intelligence reporting before the dawn of the new millennium?  

But over the last decade and more, the leaks from intelligence sources have become richer in description and detail, conveying to us their deep penetration into subterranean terror groups. It is impossible for journalists to verify whether these avowed claims are real or imaginary. Yet, if you were to read today the stories spun in the months following the bomb blast in Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid on May 18, 2007, you can’t but conclude their authors were schooled in the genre of magic-realism. (For a detailed account of this and other blasts in Hyderabad, the reader should read Sharib Ali’s Politics of terror: The Mecca Masjid Blast Case, which the Economic and Political Weekly published in August).  

The blast occurred at the time 10,000 people were praying, and perhaps common sense dictated reporters should have been a little skeptical of the information they were fed. Almost all newspapers claimed the Harkatul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) was behind the blast, and its Indian commander, Shahid Bilal, who executed it. Shahid’s real name was Abdul Rehman, and around him breathless narratives were created, based, obviously, on the intelligence the agencies had gathered about him – why and when he left Hyderabad for Pakistan, under whose tutelage he trained, the members of the HUJI network linked to him, and the other bombings in Hyderabad he was involved in. In 2008, who else but the Intelligence Bureau (IB) confirmed Shahid Bilal had been killed in a shootout in Karachi.  

For all the masterly knitting together of various strands comprising the story of Shahid Bilal, it turned out to be fiction, albeit powerful enough to destroy many. Nevertheless, it helped justify the picking up of Muslims in midnight swoops, their torture in custody, and the charges against them for organising the blast. Subsequently, though, as is now well known, Swami Aseemanand confessed that he and other members of Abhinav Bharati, a Hindu chauvinist group, organised and triggered the blast not only in the Mecca Masjid, but also at the dargahs in Ajmer and Malegoan, and the Samjhauta Express. In all these cases, too, jihadi groups were declared to have planned and executed the devastations through their Indian partners. So much for the faith journalists repose in the brilliance of our intelligence agencies.  

The durability of their faith was vividly demonstrated in 2002, when journalist Iftikhar Gilani was arrested for violating the Official Secret Act. He was accused of possessing a map depicting the deployment of Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Newspapers reported verbatim what faceless sources from intelligence agencies told the reporters: Gilani had confessed to the violation.  

The truth was that the map was part of a paper the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, had published, and could also be accessed on the internet. It was this paper which had marked out the position of Indian troops in what it called “Indian-held Kashmir”. This nomenclature the IB substituted with Jammu and Kashmir to implicate Gilani. He walked out of jail months later, but after having suffered severe beatings and humiliation, including being forced into cleaning toilets with his shirt and then wearing it. In the jail, Gilani also came across a carpenter who claimed he had been framed for violating the OSA because of a scuffle he had with an IB official while boarding a bus.    

The egregiously flawed narrative around the Mecca Masjid and the unconscionable framing of Gilani raise another question: considering the blundering, even the bluffing, ways of intelligence agencies, why do we rarely get to read stories which blow against them? The answer: blame it on the phenomenon of embedded journalism.  

Perhaps embedded journalism explains the sudden resurfacing of paragraphs which were claimed to have been expunged from the National Intelligence Agency dossier pertaining to the interrogation of David Headley. For months, nobody knew about the suppression of Headley’s purported disclosure that Ishrat Jahan was a suicide bomber until it began to be bandied about that the CBI was to name IB officer Rajendra Kumar as the mastermind behind the plan to kill her in a fake encounter. As lawyer Mukul Sinha has pointed out, the contentious paragraphs, even assuming that they had existed, would have needed to be expunged because these are inconsistent with Headley’s other disclosures.   

You can learn about the cynical, callous ways of spooks by thumbing through The Meadow, a chilling account Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark have meticulously pieced together about the kidnapping of five western tourists from Kashmir in 1995. Both the Central and state government kept expressing their keenness to save their lives. However, the authors accessed senior police officers in Kashmir and reports to claim the intelligence agencies were aware of the hideouts of the kidnappers and their hostages, and had even aerial-photographed them.  

Let alone mount a rescue operation, the spooks tacitly encouraged their killings, in the hope of giving a bad name to Pakistan’s ISI and sparking off revulsion against the militants in the Valley. Worse, when a senior Kashmiri police officer, who was the negotiator, had stitched a deal for the release of the hostages, its details were leaked to a Delhi-based newspaper – presumably by the IB – to portray to Kashmiris that the kidnappers were mere mercenaries, not freedom-fighters. They screamed betrayal and simply called off what had been protracted negotiations.  

IB’s rogue-like behaviour, presumably for the reason of statecraft, is not of recent vintage. Way back in April 1988, the late journalist Dhiren Bhagat published a piece in a London-based newspaper accusing the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of smuggling arms from Afghanistan. His story pertained to an incident at the Delhi airport on November 19, 1987. It had so transpired that custom officials stumbled upon a consignment of 23 boxes, each bearing the recipient’s name as Director-General, Communication, which had arrived on an Indian Airlines flight from Kabul. On inspection the officials found the boxes contained sophisticated arms including rocket-launchers.  

But even as they were jubilating over the haul a RAW operative walked in, claimed the consignment and whisked it away. The arms couldn’t have been for the army, Bhagat speculated, as it could have legitimately imported them through official channels. Nor was there a post designated as DG, Communications, in the I&B Ministry. Bhagat’s antennae went up as, weeks later, newspapers quoted sources to report that militants in Punjab had acquired rocket-launchers. Then, in March 1988, the Indian media reported prominently that rocket-launchers had been used in an attack on a paramilitary camp in Punjab, in which there were reportedly no casualties. Perhaps the incident prompted Bhagat to join the dots to write his piece, hinting at the possibility of government-sponsored agents firing rockets brought from Kabul to stoke anti-Sikh sentiments. 

Count the number of stories you have read detailing the transgressions of the intelligence agencies. In recent years, one readily comes to mind: the scoop on the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) eavesdropping on telephonic conversations of, among others, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, Union minister Sharad Pawar, Congress leader Digvijay Singh, and CPM general secretary Prakash Karat, using state-of-art technology to intercept telephone signals. Perhaps you could also include the story on the escape of a RAW mole, Rabinder Singh, from Delhi despite the surveillance on him, or the IB’s failure to keep tabs on the cellphone numbers of Pakistani militants that were forwarded to them five days before they attacked Mumbai.  

I may have missed a story or two, but the scoops on spooks are decidedly limited in a climate in which deterioration and decay have beset government organisations. They haven’t been tarred largely because of the mechanism underlying embedded journalism: they are the sole purveyors of information impossible to gather otherwise, as also equally impossible to verify. Theirs is a single-window clearance for what goes out and what remains classified. In times of crisis – say, a terror attack – it is they who help the reporter to satisfy bosses keen on exclusive information, however inane and irrelevant. Can they then turn around to bite the hand which feeds them, particularly as the hand has no substitute?   

Nobody can grudge the shroud of secrecy the spooks wear. But the shroud loses its sanctity as soon it is used as a cover to float facts manufactured for self-serving goals. This is precisely why editors must get together to evolve a protocol for covering the intelligence beat. For starters, perhaps, invest money and energy in finding out the veracity of Gen (retd) Singh’s claims that the Army was bankrolling politicians to walk the peace in Kashmir, which a clutch of eight former generals have refuted. Or are we to wait to know the truth until such time a journalistic investigation is undertaken by foreign journalists such as Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, who are working on a book on the 2611 Mumbai attacks? Perhaps they will shame us again for reposing faith in intelligence agencies, for being the practitioners of embedded journalism, and for our penchant to devour intelligence stories having the flavour of apple pie and cold coffee. 

The author is a Delhi-based journalist, and can be reached at ashrafajaz3@gmail.com

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