//Arms agents strike again

Arms agents strike again

Sunday, DNAINDIA.COM, June 25, 2006  

A year ago, this paper reported the mysterious leak of crucial war plans from the Indian navy's operational headquarters in Delhi. Last week, investigations into this leak, which the navy initially tried to play down, came to a head when the premises of as many as 14 people, including serving officers, bureaucrats and an arms agent were raided. Already, the scope of the investigations has included the alleged involvement of arms merchants pushing the Scorpene submarine deal. It is evident that this case is far bigger than originally thought.

But what stands out is the fact that this was not an ordinary or garden variety espionage case. At least prima facie, it does not appear that the secrets were not passing to the enemy or another state player. This was clearly a case of leaking information to arms merchants and middle-men, those shadowy people who have figured in many a scandal in the past and who clearly continue to lurk around. After the Bofors and the HDW submarine affairs, successive governments have tried to control the role and influence of arms dealers in decision making, but do not seem to have succeeded.

Two issues need to be looked at. One, the use of technology. Much of the information was carried out in powerful pen drives, which have immense storage capabilities and are difficult to detect. Clearly, spies have gone hi-tech and the defence forces will have to now gear up to improve their cyber forensics. The other notable thing is the alleged involvement of a relative of the Naval chief, who appears to have the run of the place and was well connected. This does not directly implicate the chief in any way, but the conflict of interest angle is bound to be looked into.

Given that India plans to buy arms worth billions of dollars over the next decade, the presence of agents in the deals is bound to create competition and therefore opportunities for corruption. The latest controversy renews the urgency of having greater transparency in arms deals in India.

But at the same time, the armed forces—and the entire defence establishment—need to seriously start looking at the rot within and beef up procedures to control access to information. The network of operators in this incident appears to be wide and influential and they apparently operated with ease. That is what should really serve as a wake up call.