The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 15, 2001
Time Off

Errors of precision
By Manohar Malgonkar

ALDRICH Ames in 1994, Harold Nicholson in 96, and Robert Hanssen now. They held high positions in one or the other of America’s vaunted secret services, and were busy selling secrets to the Russians. No doubt there are a few others like them who have still not been found out. In the words of a retired FBI director, Hanssen as good as "sold the farm," to the Russians. The others too, were no less generous. The secrets they sold are said to have done incalculable damage to America’s intelligence system.

Robert Hanssen, who was caught red-handed on February 12, 2001, delivering documents at a prearranged ‘drop’, was actually on the verge of retirement. He is known to have worked for the Russians for 20 years or so, and what the Russians paid him — $ 600,000 — during all those years, seems like chickenfeed — judged by the scale of American incomes. Which just shows how little it takes to tempt a public servant to betray his country’s vital secrets.

The Hanssen case sparked off some bitter criticism of the way the US runs its secret agencies. A high-profile businessman came out with a novel suggestion. Since national secrets are not really safe in the hands of public servants who have shown themselves to be so easily bribable, why not scrap the CIA, the FBI, the DIA, the NSC, the lot, and hand over the business of intelligence-gathering and the keeping of national secrets, to private companies?

This was not said in jest, but offered as a solution to the problem of guarding secrets. In fact, he tossed in several examples of how well private enterprise guards its own secrets, one of them being that of the Coca-Cola recipe — still a secret for the best part of a century.

Hats off to the sahibs
April 1, 2001
The fate of trees
February 4, 2001
Indelible memories
January 21, 2001
Small men too can make history
January 14, 2001
Of officers & gentlemen
November 19, 2000
Officers and gentlemen
October 15,2000
Villains and heroes
October 7, 2000
Among the immortals
October 1, 2000
The sad story of unquiet graves
August 20, 2000

Rare manuscripts
August 13, 2000

Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
July 2, 2000
What a tangled web !
June 25, 2000
Rivers for sale
June 4, 2000
Knowing when to stop
May 14, 2000

But of course, guarding Coca-Cola’s recipe is one thing; bottling up the plans that intelligence agencies get up to, quite another; for they involve dirty tricks of diabolic ingenuity: assassinations, sabotage, video-taping the bedroom indiscretions of the leaders of foreign countries, operating secret accounts, election-riggings, arming or funding dissidents, developing weapons and viruses, inventing or breaking secret codes or even as Pakistan is doing, recruiting religious fanatics to serve as human bombs, brainwashing them, priming them with RDX and sending them on missions into Kashmir. If such enterprises were to be entrusted to a private company, it would only mean that, instead of laying money-traps or honeytraps for individual spies, the whole organisation would be up for grabs for anyone acquiring a controlling interest in its share capital.

If, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, The wildest dreams of Kew; Are the facts of Khatmandou," the wierdest fancies of sci-fi writers are the daily bread of intelligence agencies. They’re juju-men with warped minds and their work is so highly specialised that it can never be entrusted to the bean-counters of private enterprise.

But that does not mean that the suggestion itself, of privatising inefficiently managed agencies of the state, should be dismissed without being given a fair trial. And America’s Air Force and Naval personnel have shown themselves to be so error-prone of late, that they just stand out as being ideal candidates for a stiff dose of privatisation.

For over 10 years now, America has been the planet’s pre-eminent super-power. It has spent vast sums of money on developing and perfecting weapons of war—bombers, fighters, submarines rockets — of unimaginable destructive power. The USA can be said to be totally invulnerable; it can neutralise or even obliterate from the map any nation that dares to attack American territory.

This overwhelming superiority of military strength has, in its turn, shaped a new military policy: of waging wars without committing American soldiers to the normal hazards of combat. Indeed this has become a bedrock principle of national policy. No American President can order US troops to go to the aid of its allies in Europe, or Africa or Asia—and still hope to be re-elected. But what he can do is to send its state-of-the-art fighter planes and bombers and naval ships in such situations where the enemy has no means of retaliating against them.

As for instance in the war in Yugoslavia, in which the new stealth bombers were first tried out in combat situations. When, after destroying a bridge, or a dam, or a power-plant that would plunge vast numbers of people in darkness, these planes returned to base, NATO command was required to phone the wives of the pilots that they had returned safely.

That is how much America cares for the safety of its soldiers, sailors, airmen. And the results are there to see. Near-zero military casualties.

How ironical, therefore, that such a glowing achievement, of near-zero troop losses despite having participated in campaigns such as the one in Yugoslavia should have been tarnished by the inadequacies on the part of these very servicemen, some of whom have shown themselves to be quite embarrassingly careless or clumsy.

Those state-of-the-art bombers that were employed for the precision-bombing of military targets, in NATO’s campaign in Yugoslavia. They were designed to find their targets with pin-point accuracy. One of those strategic targets they rubbled was the Chinese embassy.

The Chinese Government made no secret of its shock and anger and the Chinese people held threatening demonstrations before the U.S. embassy in Beijing. There had to be a state-to-state apology but the rumblings went on.

And remember that slap-happy US fighter pilot who, on a routine training flight, drove his aircraft through the cables of a mountain resort ski-run and sent a whole cable-coach-load of holiday-makers crashing into the valley? Accident? — but is that not the whole purpose of pilot-training? —-not to have accidents. And while service pilots may be permitted to have accidents during operational flights in combat situations, they’re just not permitted in day-to-day routine.

But the one mishap that defies plausible explanation is the achievement of the US Greenville, a gleaming new monster machine of destruction that has so many built-in safety devices that it just is not possible to make it collide into some obstacle while it is surfacing from a dive. And yet they seem to have achieved it.

It happened on February 9. The nuclear submarine was playing host to a party of visitors, and seemingly, as you or I might allow a favoured friend to take the wheel of our new car, the captain, Commander Scott Waddle either invited or permitted one of the visitors to take control of the craft while it surfaced from a dive.

And rammed into a Japanese fishing vessel, Ehime Maru and sent it to the bottom of the sea, killing nine people.

This is like a Concord pilot inviting a passenger to take over the plane during its landing! One thing is for sure, that fishing boat would not have been rammed if that submarine was in charge of a private company.

PS: On March 12, the US Air Force was holding an air-support exercise in Kuwait. One of the star items was a demonstration of precision bombing by an F/A-18 Fighter plane. On hand were five American servicemen and a New Zealander, to act as observers. The pilot managed to drop a 500 lb bomb bang on the team of observers, killing all six!

Eyes wide shut?