‘Absence of evidence does not mean absence of effort’
Interview: Vikram Sood, Former Head Of India’s Foreign Intelligence Agency, R&AW

Vikram Sood is a former head of India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing. In an interview to Gautam Datt, Sood throws light into the little known world of intelligence gathering and the current diplomatic issues.

Gautam Datt: The book throws light on the fact that the two major incidents -- the Kargil war and Mumbai attacks -- could have been dealt with in a better way or may even be prevented as there was enough intelligence available to pre-empt the Pakistani moves. Do you think we have learnt from our mistakes and systems are now in place for processing intelligence?

Vikram Sood: Unfortunate events like the Kargil war happen because of a number of reasons and not just because of inadequate intelligence. These events also provide opportunities to correct and improve methods of collection, analysis and communication as well as opportunities to make other systemic changes. The business of intelligence is a process forever looking for ways to improve. It is difficult to comment today from outside the system about the nature and extent of improvement.  The media will only know this if, God forbid, there is another similar incident. Governments, however, judge intelligence performances through successes also which must remain undisclosed through prudent choice.

GD: India’s most wanted man Dawood Ibrahim has remained out of reach. Is it the failure of  intelligence agencies or lack of clear mandate from the political leadership to launch covert operations to get him?

VS: The absence of evidence does not mean there has been absence of effort.

GD: You have stated that there is no hope for peace with Pakistan but do you see any changes, even remotely, with new government coming up in Islamabad under Imran Khan?

VS: It is far too early to comment on this. Every change in Islamabad generates false hopes among sections in New Delhi. Actually, the real decisions on India, Afghanistan, China, the US and other strategic issues emanate from Rawalpindi and not from Islamabad. Independence on such issues shown by previous political leaders in the past have quickly been stifled by the military establishment. Kargil was one of the many, neither the first nor the last.

GD: R&AW is generally perceived to be locked in games with ISI but how effective is it in dealing with China’s intelligence apparatus?

VS: It would be unethical and unprofessional to reveal anything on this. In any case, I am not in the organisation any more to make any meaningful comments. Since intelligence inputs are secret, they cannot by definition be transparent.  Dealing with the Chinese intelligence apparatus in India is not the responsibility of the R&AW.  

GD: The future of spying is use of new tools like artificial intelligence and social media. Is R&AW on the right path to tap these resources?

VS: Once again, as above.

Except that we have to prepare for the future now. In fact the future is here. This will have an immense and far reaching bearing on the game of intelligence. The rules will change. It is not just a game of gizmos but a human being with different capabilities to handle new technologies. 

GD: Does the political leadership need to be given some sort of orientation to understand the dynamics of intelligence processing so that they are well armed in decision making?

VS: The political leadership at the very top is usually well aware and discreet. However, sometimes they judge the importance of information by different yardsticks. Equally, perceptions in sections of the media also need to be rectified.

GD: If you can recall the most awkward and the most rewarding moment in your long career as a spy.

VS: It was an ordinary life.

Gautam Datt