“Intelligence & the World’s Largest Democracy” – Former Indian Intelligence Director Vikram Sood [from the vault]
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of this secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: Today is the final installment of our monthlong special on spy chiefs, featuring former director of India's foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, Vikram Sood. This episode is from the vault and was recorded during the darkest days of the pandemic when the museum was closed, infections and deaths were sky-high, and I was at home in my living room with Vikram at his home in New Delhi. While it doesn't feature the audio finesse of the episodes since we joined CyberWire, this is one of the episodes I am most proud of because tracking down and convincing a senior Indian intelligence officer to come on the show was, well, let's just say extremely difficult. But we got there in the end, and I hope you think the effort was worth it.
Andrew Hammond: In this episode, we talk the intelligence landscape in the world's largest democracy, the founding of the Research and Analysis Wing and some of its key milestones, China, Pakistan and the intelligence challenges of the region, the pressure involved in the top job and being responsible to the Indian prime minister, and the power of narratives in world history, but also for modern intelligence agencies. Vikram was the chief between 2000 and 2003 - some very interesting years, I'm sure you will agree. Please enjoy.
Andrew Hammond: It sounds like you're really busy, and you're - since you have retired.
Vikram Sood: Yeah, I think - that's what the wife complains. She says, you got more busy now than you were when you were working. That was a tough period, I think, the last 2 1/2 years.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah.
Vikram Sood: And I was being very active. But it was fun. I think working in intelligence organization is one of the most exciting things. Something keeps happening every day. And the adrenaline flows. Took over on the 1st of January 2001 and retired in March 2003 - 2 years and 1/4 and...
Andrew Hammond: There were some interesting developments during that period, huh?
Vikram Sood: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And it started off with 9/11. And of course, then we had our own parliament attack in December. And before that, before that, Musharraf had visited India. He had been invited for a last-minute sort of peace effort by Vajpayee, the prime minister. And there were quite a few of us who said it won't work, and it didn't work. So in reward of that, we got one, an attack in the Srinagar Jammu and Kashmir Parliament of the Legislative Assembly, terror attack. After 9/11, we got another one in December, when we had the whole world coming to us - the British Prime Minister, the U.S. Secretary of State - coming and telling us, oh, please, hold your hand. Don't do anything. We'll take care of these fellows. But of course, nothing really happened. It hasn't changed anything.
Vikram Sood: But even before that, we had - in '99, we had Kargil, the attack on Kargil by the Pakistanis. And then we had the hijacking of the aircraft. IC 814 was hijacked by terrorists and taken to Afghanistan. Got down eventually, where we had to do a deal with them. So terror and violence and wars took a lot of my time. And then we had the Kargil Review Committee, so we had to answer questions to the committee on so-called intelligence failures. We were the fall guys, of course. It happens every time.
Andrew Hammond: I don't want you to discuss anything you're uncomfortable with. I want you to be happy, so I'm just going to go on the - (laughter) I'm going to go on the last email that you sent me.
Andrew Hammond: So could you tell me...
Vikram Sood: I'll tell you what I can. I will definitely...
Andrew Hammond: What you can - OK.
Vikram Sood: I tell you. Well, the R&AW - you know, the Research and Analysis Wing - was formed in 1968 - September 1968. It was hived off from the Intelligence Bureau, which was an all-police organization. And when the R&AW was created, the idea was that it would draw talent from not just the police, but wherever it is available in the civil service and that they would also start direct, independent recruitment from the open market. It was 1971 they started this, and I think it was really a revolutionary kind of a step.
Vikram Sood: Personally, I think it could have worked, but unfortunately, Mrs. Gandhi, who was the prime minister at the time our organization was formed, lost the elections in '75. And the intelligence agencies are very closely connected in our system with the prime minister. And the next prime minister was Mr. Morarji Desai, whose moral standards and morality standards were very high, and he had that intelligence was a bad word. And he went about hacking RAW in particular, and there was a big - it was a big setback for the organization. You know, you're barely 9 years old and you're going to face this kind of a slaughter.
Vikram Sood: So we had a setback. And then Mr. Desai lost the premiership, but he had done the damage and gone. So when Mrs. Gandhi came back in her second term, it wasn't quite the same thing. She was busy with a lot of other things - the merger of Sikkim. And then we had - remember, you had the Sikh troubles that time. And she was assassinated in '84. So the '80s were a bad year. The United States was busy with its jihad in Afghanistan. Pakistanis are busy making their bomb. So with - '90s were a period when the - when our organization had - when the country had a series of prime ministers who came and left after a couple of years and not really paying much attention to this aspect of their work or country's work.
Vikram Sood: Things improved when Vajpayee took over, and we had little more room to maneuver and play and be - seem to be doing things. And that's what - I ended my career in 2003, when Vajpayee was still the boss, the prime minister. So we're there - we do only external intelligence. We don't do internal at all. And we're not like the ISI, which does everything under the sun. But they have to - they're there. It is owned by the Pakistan army, which owns the country. So it is - things a lot simpler there. We still have financial advisers and controllers and budget restrictions, and et cetera, et cetera. It goes on. You know how it is in democracies. We have to do all that.
Andrew Hammond: What's the domestic intelligence service?
Vikram Sood: The Intelligence Bureau is that internal service. It's the counterpart to the MI5 or FBI. And we are like the CIA - not as powerful, but external, yes. And for a powerful country, you need powerful intelligence organizations. They are global - truly global - and we are not. We are much smaller. Our interests are - was Pakistan and China to begin with, and then we added terrorism. Then it - it just keeps growing now. The concept - the meaning of terrorism has expanded in many ways - money laundering, human trafficking, all those aspects come into it because they are all - at some level terrorism, human trafficking, weapons smuggling, drugs smuggling - they all get interlinked. Sometimes the same group does couple of things together. So we have to be there - also keep a watch on that.
Andrew Hammond: The area of focus for the R&AW is really South Asia and China?
Vikram Sood: Yes. That's been so, but I think that's going to change as we look ahead. And we look ahead, say, in 2050 or '40. And as we hopefully grow bigger and better, we want to be a 10-trillion-dollar economy by year X. So our needs will increase, our threat perceptions will change. And the threat - the quality of threat will also change because now it's going to be all artificial intelligence and computers and ciphers and cyber. So all that is going to be part of the - the ability to deliver threats is changing, and the ability to carry out threats also is changing. In five minutes, you can have a riot in 10 parts of the country. On WhatsApp, flash messages all over - the intelligence won't have time to react.
Andrew Hammond: How did you find yourself in the world of intelligence?
Vikram Sood: When the organization was created in 1968, it was, like I said in the beginning, an offshoot from the Intelligence Bureau. Many of the officers from the Intelligence Bureau came to the RAW to form the organization. And they were looking for people from outside the police to join. There was some - our expression is talent scouting. It actually means looking for new faces. And so they sent around - asking for people to join a mysterious organization in the government whose name was still not known properly to many. So you're all curious, and it was supposed to be something secret and glamorous, I mean, for youngsters. I was young at that time. I was 27 - no, 28 when this thing was floated. So I put my hand up. I said I'll volunteer.
Vikram Sood: And they asked for - then they went through the usual routine of checks and interviews and kept a watch on me, perhaps, for a few weeks or months, did a background. And then one day I said - they said come along. Join us. So there I was, sitting in that organization. And it was - it took a while to get used to coming from a strong system. I was in the Civil Service before. I'd done five years with them. I was with the Post and Telegraphs. Then I switched. And many people have asked me, how come you come from an organization not really connected with intelligence? But they were looking for people from outside the police. So I was one of them. That happened 1972.
Vikram Sood: You know, the ISI was created by an Australian in 1948. So the ISI is actually an older organization compared to the RAW. And RAW was from the Intelligence Bureau, which was part of the British establishment. So on the 14 of August, the Intelligence Bureau was answerable to the king of England, as it were. On the 15 of August, it was answerable to the prime minister of India, like the Indian army. All of us - we were answerable to one person and quite different from the next morning. So the systems or work, the traditions continued for a long time. And then, as threat perceptions have varied and changed, so we have to evolve new ways of doing things. Perceptions also change. So that's been an evolution. It's not as if we said, Day 1, we're not going to do anything what they did. No, it couldn't be like that. That continuity had to be maintained to make it a gentle transition.
Andrew Hammond: That's a fascinating period from 1972 until you become the chief in 2001, and then you leave in 2003. I mean, that's a - in the history of South Asia, that's a fascinating period.
Vikram Sood: Yes, it was. It was. It is. A lot of things happened. A lot of things happened in the world in these three years - the Iranian revolution, the Soviets coming to Afghanistan, Vietnam War and Bangladesh was created. And, you know, inside - in our area, in our periphery, a lot of things happened. Then you had the Iran-Iraq war, and then you had the Iraq War and the Iraq War II, Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden. And then - I know somebody had asked me in 2002, take a guess. Where would Osama bin Laden be today? Where would he be hiding? I said, well, I don't really confirm it, but he would be with the Pakistanis. And where do you think he would be kept? So I said, if I were them, I'd keep him in Abbottabad. And that's where they found him eventually. Well, that's just a coincidence. I looked at the map and said, this place looks good enough - close to the military academy, a school on the side of the hill. Not many people go there. So that's how it was, and where...
Andrew Hammond: What are some of the major things that R&AW were involved in over that time period - so '72 to you leaving in 2003?
Vikram Sood: Our main concern in '72 was Pakistan's attempts to get the nuclear bomb. And I begin my book "The Unending Game" with this very aspect of - I didn't - that this was the thrust of the whole thing - how it was done, how we discovered that they're taking the uranium route, not the plutonium route. But they were not stopped by anyone. That's a pity.
Andrew Hammond: And tell us a little bit more about that book, "The Unending Game".
Vikram Sood: "The Unending Game" is actually a book that I decided to write. You know, after retirement, I started writing a lot of - I had a column in the newspapers - a fortnightly column. Then I graduated to doing essays for - longer pieces for books and magazines, then chapters in books and then editing some books. Then somebody said, you're doing all this. Why don't you sit down and write a book yourself? So I said, OK. I'm going to write a book on espionage - what you did. I said, no, I can't do that. I'm not allowed to do that. It'll never get published. And if I exclude all that, it won't make a story. So I won't do any memoirs. And so we thought about it. So I said, I'll do something on tradecraft and tradecraft - necessarily doing something on tradecraft, in the modern sense, means talking about the Russians - Soviets - talking about the Americans, the British, the French. And this is where it happened, all of it. This is where the Cold War and everything else was fought.
Vikram Sood: So naturally, a lot of my chapters are related to that aspect of the Cold War. And it's a very fascinating period that went on. So I covered that. And then I also discovered that controlling the narrative is an essential part of the game. For the government and the CIA, or the intelligence agencies - love to do that. It's - well, it's just done. Control the narrative to control the world. And my book has a chapter on controlling the narrative. And when I finished the book, I did one chapter on keeping intelligence relevant, which is mostly about India - what we should do for the future. And I've been looking ahead. I'm not saying, you know, what's wrong with us now. But if you keep talking like that, you never get anywhere.
Vikram Sood: What you have to do is to think about the future and say, if you want to be successful in 30 years from now, what should you be doing today? What would be the threats then, and how would you be able to handle that and are you prepared for it? That is what I tried to argue. And I - my constant refrain has been that you should reform intelligence and you must - your human factor is the most important factor. If that is not right, when that is not trained or motivated, all your technical equipment and all these things will just not deliver. So that's the main thrust of my book. I give instances and stories, and...
Andrew Hammond: This is your most recent book - or this is "The Unending Game?"
Vikram Sood: That is the first book. "The Ultimate Goal" is the new one. That's about narratives. That how - you know, a world of the - world over, the major powers, how they - you can have the best army, the strongest military, the strongest economy, the best technology, everything else is good. But if your story doesn't sell, then you're in trouble. Also, it works the other way. The United States, with all its - the best army, the world's strongest, best-equipped - the entire globe is divided into military commands, hundreds of bases all over, but they haven't won a war. It is still considered the strongest, the best, the mightiest. But that's the narrative. That narrative is held, see? So that is the point I'm making, that your narrative has to be strong. You have to tell the people who you are, what you are, what you want to do.
Vikram Sood: And for us, I am - by giving examples on how it is done the world over, it's another conscious effort that somebody pens down on the blackboard - today, you shall do this. It's a thing that puts, like, the major establishments in the United States - one of their finest, their strongest, the best, I think, is the Council on Foreign Relations. It has the - perhaps the best brains that are there for this - intellectuals, former presidents, corporate heads, journalists, writers, even actors, even, I think - I don't forget him - George, who? I forget his name. Sorry. Never mind. They are members of the Council of Foreign Relations. They are described in the West, in the United States, as the Wall Street's think tank, or, alternatively, the second Department of State. So that's the power. It's not a conscious effort, but it's there. They do it.
Vikram Sood: Then you have the CIA working along with the Hollywood - with Hollywood movies. "Zero Dark Thirty" is - was obviously an attempt to show that the extraordinary interrogation worked. When we used to give intelligence to our Western friends, and they'd ask us, where did this come from? - we would say interrogation. They said, no, we don't believe your interrogation. Narratives and stories change with circumstance. And there are still stories out on what happened to Osama bin Laden, how he was caught out, why he was - how he was caught out. So narratives play a big role.
Vikram Sood: And, for us, we were colonized. The British didn't come to - because they were from the Salvation Army or the Red Cross volunteers. They were there to make money and to build - they were an imperial power, so they behaved like one. And - but we must learn from that. We need not hold that as a rancor about it. But we let them do it. They did it. But what has happened is that, over time, we have not been able to get over building our own story ourselves. We love approbation from the West - oh, they like what I said or they don't like what I'm saying - I shan't say it. My interests and the United States' interests may not tally all the time, and they need not. So we have to be able to put our point of view across to the West - to the Western governments. Look at the way, these days, these farmers are protesting all over in the West, I believe, because of some law introduced in India. That is giving a narrative to the West, which may not be true, but we have to counter that.
Vikram Sood: And then, also, I believe there's nothing to be gained by complaining. Nothing to be complaining that The Washington Post or The New York Times or The Economist says this, that and the other. They will say it. You just learn to counter them, or you anticipate and say what you want to say and have the means to say. Our problems - we don't have the means so far. Everything is controlled by a few companies - media companies in the West - Reuters, AFP, CNN. The voice comes from there. We don't have the means yet.
Andrew Hammond: We'll be right back after this.
Andrew Hammond: How did you become interested in narratives to begin with?
Vikram Sood: When I joined service - when I was at college, let's say, we had the '62 war with China. We had the '65 war with Pakistan. I was still at college. And soon after the '62 war, we had visitors from the United States and Britain - I think Averell Harriman and Duncan Sandys, they came - and - to evaluate how much interest - how much they could help us. Very fine gesture. But there was a clause - a hidden clause. We'll do you, but, you know, you might want to talk to Pakistan about Kashmir - kind of thing. A gentle nudge. You do this. OK, that passed. '65 - we had a conflict with Pakistan, and they attacked us. Then we found that the Time magazine would say three third-rate armies fighting each other for nothing. That was the - you know, you start getting feeling that, here we are, trying to fight ourself - find our way out, but nobody wants to pay attention to what we want to do.
Vikram Sood: And so it continued to happen that you could see that democracy was more and more a slogan. As I - when I joined RAW, then I started to realize that certain things are only slogans. They're not meant to be taken seriously. The narrative is that the United States would bring peace and harmony and democracy to the rest of the world by defeating the Soviet Union and communism - fine, accept it. But who was helping this fight? Sixty-five dictators all over the world. You have a narrative for peace and freedom, but you're getting support only from dictators. So there is - there was this anomaly. There was this - and then, of course, once - when we had the invasion of Iraq during Bush's time - al-Qaida and weapons of mass destruction, nuclear - how he was treated afterwards or how Gadhafi was treated afterwards. So it left me with a feeling that human rights, democracies are good slogans to use. There is no such thing as democracy in the international sphere. Democracy exists only inside each individual country, if it does. Outside, only sovereignty is equal, perhaps. Power isn't. Power resides where it does - with the powerful. So they dictate what is to be the narrative, what is to be the storyline for the day. That's why I thought I should put my - that narratives don't have to be completely based on truth. You have to tell the world of your superiority or invincibility or nobility, that love for freedoms and democracy. But then, the United States also covered its entire population with surveillance, when they're listening to all conversations in the name of war on terror. That's what I try and describe.
Vikram Sood: Marriages can go wrong. I've talked about the Chinese, the Russians, the Brits, of course. They are the originals. They are the original United States. And I have also said what we should be doing. What is - well, who are we anymore? How do we describe ourselves to the rest of the world? And how should we be doing it for the future? If you want to be something, you must have a narrative.
Andrew Hammond: I am personally interested in narratives and identity, but it's not often something that's associated with intelligence because people think the people that work in intelligence are all hardheaded and it's all about how many tanks do you have and, you know...
Vikram Sood: Yeah, yeah (laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...How big is your industry. But in your most recent book, you say that the power of narrative is more powerful than anything that comes out of the barrel of a gun.
Vikram Sood: Yes. And long-lasting, and long-lasting, yeah. And this shows that the intelligence agents can be sensitive souls. They can do art and - art and literature and music.
Andrew Hammond: It's not all science and numbers.
Vikram Sood: No, it's not - not always.
Andrew Hammond: And you mention Hollywood. That made me think, is - does the R&AW have a link with Bollywood?
Vikram Sood: I know a lot of people who ask me that, too, but no, we don't have one. They do bring out some movies, which are a bit of an embarrassment. It's so - not remotely connected to the real thing. They've had a few movies where they've shown glimpses of having - trying to understand. It was pretty well done, I thought, but not a story which is purely based on espionage. But there's nothing like that movie, the movie which we saw recently about Rudolf Abel, Colonel Rudolf Abel.
Andrew Hammond: He was swapped for Francis Gary Powers, if I recollect.
Vikram Sood: Yes. That's right. That's - I begin one of my chapters with that story and how the narrative - how Stalin was able to change the narrative, not just because Abel, but others got the bomb.
Andrew Hammond: And what role do you think intelligence agencies can play or should play in shaping narratives? Are the particular challenges or dangers there?
Vikram Sood: I would think that the intelligence agencies have a role, but sort of limited role to change the narrative. Narrative changing has to be little more open and - to be acceptable. If it is done surreptitiously - you can do a movie. You can do - you can write books. You can fund books. You can fund ideals. You can do those kinds of things. That, the intelligence agencies are pretty good at. But the big picture has to come from on high. The intelligence agencies become the executors, not originators. They shouldn't be made the originators of the narrative, but maybe the executors in certain fields.
Vikram Sood: They can glamorize the movie. I mean, the United States would give its, for many of these movies, Tom Clancy movies, the actual airports and aircraft for filming the shots. So that level of coordination between the producer, between the actors and the government agency involved has to be subtle and trusted. Then you can do it. But if somebody is going to go around talking about it and saying, oh, the RAW helped me make this movie, then it doesn't sell.
Andrew Hammond: I mean, some people would find that a little concerning, the government getting involved with the entertainment industry to try to advance a particular narrative.
Vikram Sood: Yeah. No, that's true. Narrative, therefore, will have to be done by the society. Who do we want to be? How do we want to be seen? And it should be left to the individuals sitting together and working out. And after some time, it becomes automatic. You - if the government say, I shall tell you what to do, then it becomes, eventually, just a propaganda. You must be able to have the ability to take criticism. Credibility requires that somebody must be able to criticize also. If everything is hunky-dory and everything you're doing well and nobody is bothered - but anything that's wrong, then it is not a good story. The storyline has to be real.
Andrew Hammond: It has to be a societal narrative. It has to come from society as a whole.
Vikram Sood: Yeah, it has to come from society.
Andrew Hammond: Is that part of India's story since independence - the search for a unifying narrative?
Vikram Sood: Not in recently. For a long time, we carried on with this belief that everything is fine with us. We live - secularism was given a slant, which meant appeasement. That's what the majority began to think. And I - we always say that governments have to be secular, but the people have to be tolerant - only then it works. Individuals - you and I are not secular. You don't have to be secular. We don't have to be equidistant from all religions. But we have to tolerate each other's religion or beliefs or thought or speech or whatever. But over time, it became necessary for - you know, we are a majority Hindu country. And the ethos of any country comes from its majority - Hindu. It's either Christian or Jewish or Islamic. It comes from the majority - religion and language, maybe.
Vikram Sood: So when the Indian votes, and he votes now more and more for BJP, it doesn't necessarily mean that India's becoming a majoritarian Hindu regime country. The Hindus will vote. And whoever votes for a party, that party will win. That's democracy. Now, if they vote a right-of-center party - doesn't make that party necessarily a majoritarian party, which would exclude everybody else. But this is the story which we hear from the West about us. We're always a Hindu nationalist party - the BJP. It's a favorite description. We don't call the Republican Party or the Christian Democratic Party of Germany any such names, but they are - the U.S. President goes to a Christian breakfast the first Tuesday of February every year, since the time of Eisenhower - only Christians are invited. So everybody has a majority theme but doesn't mean excluding others.
Andrew Hammond: How does Indian society map on to India's intelligence agencies as - are the intelligence agencies reflect of society? Are they bringing people in from different religions, different groupings, or is it something different?
Vikram Sood: You mean ethnically or...
Andrew Hammond: Ethnically...
Vikram Sood: ...Religion?
Andrew Hammond: ...Religiously, linguistically.
Vikram Sood: To be quite honest, when we started off, it was monthly ethnic, monthly religion, monthly linguistic - everything. But there was hesitation after the partition of India to take Muslims into the service - intelligence service. But that is changing. That has begun to change, and people do realize that patriotism is not the birthright of only one community or one religion or one - so that has begun to change. And it will normalize one day, but it's not any more a conscious effort to keep them out. It was - I mustn't - it started off a bit like that, yes.
Andrew Hammond: I remember when I was studying Indian intelligence is that there is more Muslims in India than there is in Pakistan.
Vikram Sood: You're talking about, I would say, about 250 million Muslims. All right, that's not a minority really, in many senses of the term. It's a huge - it's four times the size of France's population. So it's a big number. And they're doing really well in many fields. And they have problems - of course they have problems. But their problems, I think, are not much different from what the problems of every other Indian in similar circumstances has been. So to give it a religious color is a favorite political ploy, of course. And what - some of our best commentators, some of our best journalists, artists are Muslims. And it never mattered to us. It doesn't still matter to us. Pakistan has - does not know how to live with another religion. They don't have any other religion. That's their problem. They want to be Islamic, but they want us to be secular. An Islamic country can never be secular. An Islamic country is always Islamic. But you Hindus, Indians, should be secular. That won't change, really. We're not going to be changing. And we are secular because the majority is secular and tolerant. But there are some bad ones. That's - they're in every system, some extremists.
Andrew Hammond: A lot of our listeners are from the Five Eyes community. To what extent did you interact with people from those communities during your career?
Vikram Sood: We interacted largely with the British and Americans, Canadian. Because - also because the diaspora was there. And the diaspora, those days was - sometimes tended to be anti-Indian member or - the famous Kanishka Air India bombing in 1983, '84. It was shot down like - it exploded just short of Cork in Ireland. And the entire aircraft had been blown up. It was done by Sikh terrorists. So there was a lot of liaison with the Canadians and the Indian intelligence. It had to be. And the diaspora in Britain is a big one, in the United States as well. But the other countries, not so much. Australia, New Zealand - they didn't have that. We - and Indians didn't have the need to be - to develop that kind of relationship then. Things are different now. There are other reasons to be cooperating. Now you have the Quad and so on, so forth. So there will be more cooperation here.
Andrew Hammond: Talk a little bit about the Quad.
Vikram Sood: The four-nation grouping of - well, the Chinese once asked us - after retirement, I'd met some Chinese and they asked, is this the Asian NATO? So they were worried - that would be about 10 years ago when the thing was really being thought of. So I think the Quad has a long way to go. It's still an idea, which the Indians will remain a little skeptical about joining - formally joining an alliance. They would do everything else, but to fight wars on each other's behalf, I don't know whether it would work. And I don't think it will work. I don't expect the Australians to come and help us if the Chinese were to do something to us tomorrow. So each - ultimately, it's each country to itself and cooperation to keep China in control or semblance of control, not to fight wars, really.
Andrew Hammond: From your position as R&AW chief, what are some of the major things that you were involved in, or what are some of the highlights that the organization was involved in during then?
Vikram Sood: Afraid intelligence-wise, I won't be able to say much. Security-wise, I'd mention that, you know, we were in the throes of having to deal - just a year before I took over the - we had Kargil, we had a hijacking of the aircraft, and we had those terror-related activities. We had - terror became the main story of our lives during that period I was there. And not so much hot wars, but terror from Pakistan, terror in Pakistan, terror by Pakistan in Afghanistan - that became the centerpiece of the story. And we had a lot of exchanges with the West on that. And that was - used to be the, shall I say, almost the everyday story. And we did other things alongside - we did China and Pakistan, but this was the hard battle most of the time.
Andrew Hammond: So terrorism became the major thing that the R&AW was dealing with from 2000 on?
Vikram Sood: Actually, we started dealing with terrorism in the '90s, when the Pakistanis unleashed various terror groups into Kashmir. And one after another - they'd create one, remove it, bring another, bring another - Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, before that, Hizbul Mujahideen - all these various groups. So keeping a watch on terror, keeping a watch on Pakistan was - took a lot of everyone's resources and may continue until - and then, ultimately, it happened in 2008. You remember Bombay?
Andrew Hammond: Yeah.
Vikram Sood: November 26, 2008, when Bombay burned, really, for three days. That was a terrible attack. It was - we call - we like to call it our 9/11, although the casualties were less. But it was - and there was a lot of anger. There was probably even - probably the government thought of retaliation but didn't. So that's where it ended. And terror hasn't stopped. It still continues as a - one of the major battles. Only last year, we had incidents in Pulwama. We struck back and - with an air raid. And these major terror attacks don't come every day. It's once in two years, once in three years by the nature of things. But every day, terror is there. It's less now. It's less than what it was. And there was a horrible period of the '90s when 300,000 Kashmiri Hindus had to leave Srinagar overnight.
Andrew Hammond: Very few people ever reach the position of being, you know, the chief of an organization. What's it like to have all that responsibility?
Vikram Sood: A lot depends on how - in the Indian system and how good your relationship or how good your political leadership is to you. That makes the job much easier. You know, there is immense tension in the job because, well, anything can go wrong any day, and you will be held responsible if there is another bomb blast somewhere else. So - but if their leadership is supportive, and it's understanding and also contributes to helping you decide things or takes decisions for you that need political clearances, that helps a lot. That takes away the anxieties. It keeps the blood pressure down, keeps it even.
Andrew Hammond: And who does the R&AW chief report to?
Vikram Sood: The prime minister.
Andrew Hammond: Oh, directly to the prime minister? Wow. And for our listeners, within the R&AW, is it similar to, for example, the CIA, where you have analysts; you have operators...
Vikram Sood: Yeah. Yes.
Andrew Hammond: ...You have technical officers?
Vikram Sood: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Vikram Sood: We have all that.
Andrew Hammond: And one of the things that I am personally fascinated in is the Soviet-Afghan war. I wondered if you could tell us once about that, if that was part of your career?
Vikram Sood: I was still young in the service, and I wasn't handling Afghanistan. So my knowledge about Afghanistan was what I read in the papers, not what they were doing or not doing inside. You operated with the distinctive security principles. So one didn't get to know much, and one didn't ask too many questions. That was taboo.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Vikram Sood: But as one went along and when the second - when the war on terror started Bush's time, then, of course, everybody knew. Then we were - I was in the thick of it in the sense that we were sitting there at the head when the Afghan global war on terror had started. So there was a lot of activity. There was a lot of exchanges with the Afghans, but that's it. No, actually, I mean, if you have something happening in your neighborhood where intelligence agencies will get involved, will want to know - help the government come to a decision of some sort.
Andrew Hammond: What are some of the things that you think our listeners should know about Indian intelligence agencies?
Vikram Sood: There are three main intelligence groups today - groupings or agencies today. One is the Intelligence Bureau, which is the oldest, which was formed by the British originally, and it was not called Intelligence Bureau in the first place - called the Political Branch. And then it became the Intelligence Bureau later. And RAW came in '68. And in 2004, we had the NTRO, the National Technical Resources Organisation, like the American NSA. It's for - purely for technical intelligence. So they do that. The - many of our paramilitary organization - we have a large number of them - the Border Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Force and the Special Services Bureau, which is for the Nepal-Sikkim border, the Nepal and Bhutan borders. So they do tactical intelligence for them, for their own requirements for cross border.
Vikram Sood: The army has - the armed forces have the DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, with air intelligence, military intelligence and air, naval intelligence separately. So they also do mostly tactical intelligence and purchases, military hardware acquired by - they don't do political analysis. The RAW does - is an all-source agency which is supposed to provide to the government intelligence related to all strategic aspects that relate to the security of the country, which could include military, economic, political, scientific, all that. So we take material from everybody else, so their reports and our own reports, our own signal intelligence, whatever you can lay your hands on, from the NTRO to get a composite picture and then present it to the government. We don't do policy. They might ask - the government is willing to say - is free to ask us, but on matter of principle, we merely give you the assessment of the situation. It's for the political leaders or the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security to take the decision.
Andrew Hammond: And is there an Indian equivalent of the president's daily brief?
Vikram Sood: No, it's not a daily brief in the sense that it is presented to the president every morning. In India, it's given to him. It's sent by mail to him - to the prime minister, every evening. Which is one document that the head of the organization must sign and be held responsible next morning.
Andrew Hammond: This is something that you had to sign off on and be responsible for?
Vikram Sood: Yes. Every - every night. Sign off and hope for the best.
Andrew Hammond: Were there ever any times where you signed off on something and crossed your fingers?
Vikram Sood: Not in a major way, but yeah.
Vikram Sood: It was pardonable.
Andrew Hammond: A lot of the energy of Indian intelligence is focused towards Pakistan. Would that be fair to say?
Vikram Sood: Look, it's - it's changing now. It's changing, in the sense that China is a big problem for all of us. And we have - I think that would be a zone where they will need to pay much more attention to what the Chinese could - might - do. We've seen what has happened in our borders in Ladakh. Two years ago, it was in the India-Bhutan. And there is a sense of aggression in China. Maybe it's premature hubris. I don't know. But Xi Jinping seems to be somebody in a hurry, and he's, as we like to call him, the chairman of everything. He owns everything there, and the party owns everything else.
Vikram Sood: So there is - there is a push, and you can't have a normal relation, or trade relations, with a country which is going to do this to you. I mean, at least for us, it is not - not possible to have a border which is undemarcated, which is liable to be transgressed and - by any side, any time. You have nuclear power to our north, nuclear power to our west, and the one on the west is willing to use it any time. It carries on its nuclear - it carries on its terrorism under a nuclear umbrella. But despite that, Pakistan has not made a difference. Well, not made a difference to our lives. But China can. So that would be the ultimate threat. Pakistan, you - I think we'll learn to handle it. Pakistan is probably clobbering itself on its own feet. So it's OK.
Andrew Hammond: This has been absolutely fascinating. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Vikram Sood: It's been great talking to you. Thank you for having me on your show. Keep the good parts there, right?
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Well, I'll make sure.
Vikram Sood: Where I look good. Where I look good.
Andrew Hammond: That's all over.
Vikram Sood: OK. Take care. Bless you.
Andrew Hammond: Take care.
Vikram Sood: Bye.
Andrew Hammond: Bye.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter at @INTLSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at email@example.com. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter at @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.