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Talks on, US, India seek close ties in intelligence-sharing

The discussions on the pact will be reviewed by the two leaders on Sunday.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi |
January 25, 2015 3:41:15 am
 US President Barack Obama receives a warm welcome from PM Narendra Modi at the Palam Airport, New Delhi. (Source: PIB India) US President Barack Obama receives a warm welcome from PM Narendra Modi at the Palam Airport, New Delhi. (Source: PIB India)

The US and India have begun discussions on a intelligence-sharing pact that could tie the two countries’ covert services into one of the closest partnerships the superpower has outside of the “Five Eyes” Treaty signed by the five English-speaking powers after World War II, highly-placed government sources have told The Sunday Express.

First raised ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s summit meeting with President Barack Obama in September, the discussions on the pact will be reviewed by the two leaders on Sunday, the sources said.

The pact would enable India access to encrypted digital traffic its intelligence services are now unable to decipher. It would also make state-of-the-art western espionage technology available to the Directorate of Military Intelligence and the National Technical Research Organisation.

The push for a closer intelligence relationship, the sources said, comes from the US Department of Defence, and its reputedly Indophile secretary, Ashton Carter. It also has the backing of former National Security Council staff President Obama has brought into key positions in the White House.

Interestingly, the new US envoy to New Delhi, Richard Verma, earlier worked in the National Security Council, having joined after serving in the United States Air Force.

Experts George Perkovich and Toby Dalton are among several influential figures who have backed the push, writing last year that the US “needs to be more forthcoming in sharing intelligence with India and holding Pakistan to account for its ambivalent counter-terrorism performance”. “Five Eyes”, signed in 1946, tied the governments of the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand into what is today the largest intelligence gathering network in the world, using listening stations across the world and a string of dedicated satellites, to gather virtually all internet, telecommunications and satellite traffic. It is also thought to have the largest capabilities for breaking encrypted traffic, centred around the US National Security Agency.

In addition to Five Eyes, the post-9/11 world has seen the emergence of several affiliates: Nine Eyes, which added France, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands; and Fourteen Eyes, which added Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden to Nine Eyes. The US also has similar arrangements with closely allied states such as South Korea, Singapore and Japan.

Ever since the 1990s, when the European Parliament conducted an investigation of Five Eyes’ ECHELON electronic-intelligence gathering system, there have been repeated revelations that the agreement also allowed partners to bypass domestic legal restrictions on espionage, targeting citizens of member states by their own spy services.

Documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed that Five Eyes members had been spying on each others’ citizens, and then passing on the information to their partners. “Intelligence cooperation between India and the US has grown dramatically since 26/11”, a government official told The Sunday Express, “but a pact would give some structure to the system. It would give clarity on exactly what would and would not be shared.”

The US has provided a growing volume of information on planned attacks by Pakistan-based groups — helping India preempt at least two attacks on diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan, the last one its consulate in Herat.

However, it does not currently share the raw data or sources from which the warnings are generated — in some cases, making interpretation of information problematic.

There are, sources said, several formidable challenges to be overcome before India can begin purchasing cutting-edge digital intelligence technologies from the US. For example, fearful that equipment can be used to eavesdrop on sensitive information, India insists on domestic security certification for purchases. However, no Indian firm currently certifies EAL7-plus, the most stringent standard for digital security.

Fears also exist that an intelligence-sharing agreement might allow penetration of its own secrets. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, which saw the first warming in ties with the US, was deeply embarassed by the disclosure that the CIA had recruited Research and Analysis Wing officer Rabinder Singh. “There will be huge benefits from such a relationship,” said former RAW official Anand Arni, “but also very substantial risks. The devil in such deals is always in the detail, so the fine print will have to be studied very carefully.”

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