Ex-RAW Chief Vikram Sood’s Unending Insights Into Spy Trade 

Former RAW official Ravi Joshi reviews former RAW Chief Vikram Sood’s explosive book ‘The Unending Game’.

5 min read
Book cover courtesy Penguin Random House.

It is rare for spies (with the honorable exception of a John le Carre or a Graham Greene) to write well, let alone a gripping and racy book on their trade.

Ex-RAW (Research & Analysis Wing) Chief Vikram Sood’s latest book The Unending Game: A Former R&AW Chief's Insights into Espionage, is a brilliant tour de force of not only espionage — past and present — but also of the security challenges of our times and of the future, particularly in the virtual world of cyber space.

The sheer range of subjects and his handling of the same is masterful, and unquestionable. Besides, he is a great story-teller.

Vikram Sood does not merely drop names of hundreds of spies of yore or of books on the trade without rounding off the story and telling what they meant then — and of their relevance today. It is not merely a RAW Chief’s memoirs of his target country —Pakistan and its ISI, and all the terror groups that it has spawned in India (which should be par for the course for anyone in his position) — but it is his knowledge of so many spies of the CIA, KGB, MI6 and Mossad, and of their triumphs and failures as narrated in the hundreds of books that he quotes.

That is what distinguishes Vikram Sood from others. Sood’s understanding of the trade, particularly of the coming challenges of the future, clearly puts him leagues ahead of his colleagues.

Vikram Sood is so abreast of his times, that one wonders as to why he was ever allowed to retire.

Certain eminences should be continued as ‘Secretary Emeritus’ to focus on shaping these agencies for the future.

Secret Societies – Past and Present

It is difficult to pick one or two chapters for a focused examination. Each chapter is brimming with insight, but my favorite is the one on ‘Intelligence Smoke and Mirrors’, for that would be an area of darkness to most readers. Many of us have read of global conspiracies, of the kind that Islamic militants put up on their websites or of global oil interests (such as the Al Jazeera film on ‘The Seven Sisters’).

But here are tales of what the leaders of the free world in the West did after the onset of the Cold War — a kind of privatization of intelligence and covert action by elite power circles, through secret societies. The ‘Pinay Cercle’, the ‘First Name Club’, ‘Gladio A&B’, ‘The Safari Club’, ‘The Bilderbergers’, ‘The Council for Foreign Relations’, and the ‘Trilateral Commission’, are some of the organisations that were created for ensuring the corporate interests of a few, and political hegemony of a group of countries.

When Craig Unger writes a book on the ‘House of Bush and the House of Saud’, or when Michael Moore makes a film on ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ they become outliers, and do not enter the mainstream discussion challenging the dominant narrative.

That is the power of the ‘Deep State’. Quoting Professor Peter Dale Scott, former Canadian diplomat, the author describes the Deep State as “a parallel secret government, organised by the intelligence and security apparatus, and financed by drugs, that engages in illicit violence to protect the status quo of the military against threats from intellectuals, religious groups and occasionally the constitutional governments.”

You may be forgiven for thinking he is referring to the ISI, but here, the reference is to the mother of all such agencies — the CIA.

There are some other fascinating nuggets in the book — that Ernest Hemingway was a KGB agent though the MI6, and the CIA thought he was their asset; that the famous magazine Encounter on whose diet we all grew up during our college days, was actually funded by the CIA through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and its famed editor, poet Stephen Spender, resigned in disgust when he found out — and that Gabriel Garcia Marquez felt cheated on learning of this and stopped contributing to the magazine.

When Intelligence Failed

Another fascinating chapter is ‘Known by their failures’. Here, Vikram Sood writes about some of the spectacular failures of Intelligence, such as the failure of the CIA to detect our second nuclear test — Pokhran II — in May 1998; the monumental failure of the NSA and the CIA on 9/11; failure to protect Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur on 21 May 1991; the ‘so-called failure’ of IB and the RAW in detecting the occupation of Tiger Hill and other mountain tops in Kargil by Pakistani soldiers disguised as shepherds.

On the Kargil issue, Sood stoutly rebuts the argument of General V P Malik, the then Chief of Army Staff, that Pakistan had succeeded in its intrusions because of major deficiencies ‘in our system of collecting, reporting, collating and assessing intelligence’.

Sood goes on to say that the original fault lies with the Army in regularly withdrawing its troops from the Drass and Sando sectors in winter, that were routinely guarded by the BSF earlier, despite the bone-chilling cold. He goes on to add that both IB and the RAW provided enough inputs from as early May 1998 to April 1999. Sadly, the Kargil Committee headed by K Subramanyam, which discovered that intelligence reports had been ignored by the consumers, omitted this fact in its final report.


Self-Perception & the Reform of RAW

Before taking up the reform of Intelligence agencies, the author says that it is “necessary to have an assessment about the sort of power we want to be, the route we will have to take, and the obstructions and pitfalls that we will face from our adversaries and friends en route”. This is far more ambitious than a National Security Doctrine, the elements of which are largely absent from a national debate, if ever such a doctrine has been worked out in the South Block.

Considering that future wars will be highly technology-oriented, with the embedding of Artificial Intelligence and miniaturisation and delivery of weapons through unmanned drones and helicopters, we have to design newer methods of defence and offence.

The fact that the terrorists could use the same technology, makes the future even more chilling. The job of the Intelligence agencies is all the more daunting, as they are expected to not only predict, but also pre-empt such attacks.

Vikram Sood knows from direct experience that the RAW is in urgent need of drastic reforms, even for carrying out traditional Intelligence tasks, let alone the futuristic functions of the digital world. He lists out several measures to reform the agency in recruiting and training analysts, operators, handlers and master spies. A thorough overhaul is what he prescribes.

It is for the government to decide if it wants to stay ahead of the competition in the brave new world where there may not be a single hegemon but multiple players — including India (with each one jostling for the pole position). It is if its critical agencies are future ready.

(Ravi Joshi is a former official of R&AW and a Visiting Fellow at the ORF. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(Vikram Sood’s debut work of non-fiction ‘The Unending Game: A Former R&AW Chief's Insights into Espionage’ has been published by Penguin Random House, and is available on

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