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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Naval War Room Leak case: Sensational story of info theft still awaits ending

What is the alleged espionage case that rocked the Naval establishment in 2005? Why has the investigation lagged in a matter with serious national security implications?

Written by Deeptiman Tiwary | Updated: February 12, 2018 1:31:56 am
Naval War Room Leak case: Sensational story of info theft still awaits ending CBI recently gave a clean chit to a Navy officer sacked in the aftermath of a spy scandal from 13 years ago. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

The CBI has told the Delhi High Court that it has no evidence against dismissed Naval officer Captain Kashyap Kumar linking him to the Naval War Room Leak case, it was reported recently. Kumar had approached the court saying the taint was creating problems for him in his present employment. What is the alleged espionage case that rocked the Naval establishment in 2005? Why has the investigation lagged in a matter with serious national security implications?

The revelations

In early 2005, Air Force Intelligence put an Air Defence Directorate officer who was allegedly having an extra-marital relationship, under electronic surveillance. What emerged shook up the security establishment.

Based on the information it had collected, Air Intelligence raided the home of Wing Commander S L Surve that April, and allegedly recovered a pen drive that contained documents related to India’s maritime preparedness and plans for the next 20 years. Naval Intelligence was informed, and the leak was traced to a computer in the Maritime Operations Centre of the Directorate of Naval Operations in South Block. Thus was born the Naval War Room Leak episode.

The Navy conducted an in-house investigation and, in December 2005, fixed responsibility on three war room officers — Commander Vijendra Rana of the Marine Commando Force, and navigation and operations specialists Commander Vinod Kumar Jha and Captain Kashyap Kumar.

All three officers were sacked without a trial, using a provision under Article 311 of the Constitution, which allows summary action in case “the President or the Governor, as the case may be, is satisfied that in the interest of the security of the State, it is not expedient to hold such inquiry”.

The investigations revealed that the sensitive information, running into over 7,000 pages, was being leaked to arms dealders and middlemen. Key among them were alleged to be retired Naval officers Ravi Shankaran and Kulbhushan Prashar, and arms dealer Abhishek Verma. Shankaran is a relative of the then Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash.

CBI steps in

The probe and action was initially limited to Naval Headquarters. However, after media reports began to suggest that the alleged leak was linked to the Scorpene submarines deal in which, too, Verma was involved as a middleman, the government handed the investigations to the CBI in 2006.

CBI registered an FIR and raided over 20 locations connected to Shankaran and Parashar. The latter was arrested in April 2006 as he landed in Delhi from London. Jha, Rana, Verma and Wg Cdr Surve, too, were arrested, apart from Rajrani Jaiswal, a woman with whom Surve was allegedly associated. Jaiswal was not chargesheeted, however. Kashyap Kumar was neither arrested nor chargesheeted.

Based on Parashar’s revelation that he had met Shankaran in London, CBI moved to get his passport cancelled. A warrant was issued through Scotland Yard, and an Interpol Red Corner Notice was put out, too, but Shankaran remained elusive.

The documents

In its chargesheet, the CBI said it had unearthed the following documents:

* A file containing a war game marked ‘Top Secret’, based on inputs sent to Naval HQ by Indian intelligence

* Details of the Navy’s operations, including its fleet and submarines, for the next 20 years — information that could translate into windfall gains for any defence equipment company

* Details of “vulnerable areas” and “vulnerable points” in India’s air defence network

* A brief on Sir Creek, marked ‘Secret’, for the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff ahead of his talks with Pakistan

* The standard operating procedure for the Pechora missile project

* Details of the joint response by the Army, Navy and Air Force in case of a Pakistani ingress in Kutch sector

* Files relating to Sir Creek and the Navy’s positioning in this disputed territory

The chargesheet, filed in July 2006, noted: “This information for big multinationals engaged in defence supplies implies planning their business and networking strategies for the next 20 years, because this gives them a clear insight as to what the requirements of Indian Navy would be in this area, hence affording a market edge. The worth of this information, when translated into currency could run into billions of dollars.” The CBI also said that such top secret information in the hands of the enemy could seriously compromise national security.

The long chase

To unravel the conspiracy, however, CBI needed to interrogate Shankaran. After he went absconding from the UK, investigators tracked him through technical surveillance across Europe, before he gave himself up in the UK in April 2010. The CBI began extradition proceedings through the Crown Prosecution Service of London in the Westminster Court, where former liquor baron Vijay Mallya is currently fighting an extradition case.

In March 2013, the court cleared the way for Shankaran’s extradition to India. He challenged the decision, and in April, 2014, the England and Wales High Court upheld his appeal, observing that the CBI evidence was “doubtful”, and that the pace of the trial in India was so slow, it had taken the other accused six years to secure bail. The court pointed to technical problems with testimonies against Shankaran, and noted that the Navy had, in response to a 2008 RTI query, denied having searched Commander Rana’s residence. It also found that CBI had failed to establish that Vic Branson, who received an email with details of BSF operations in Sir Creek, was Shankaran. The court observed that these raised “fundamental doubts on the provenance of key evidence”.

CBI failed to appeal against the order in the stipulated window of 14 days, apparently because it failed to get a legal opinion from the government in time.

The remaining accused in the case are currently facing trial in a special CBI court. A plea by Rana and Jha to overturn their ouster from the Navy was rejected by the Supreme Court in February last year.

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