Till now, the Union government’s response to the Pegasus scandal was “Pegasus, who?” or “Pegasus, where?” Then, on Monday, there was another twist worthy of note. In response to a question by V. Sivadasan of the CPI(M), on “whether the Government had carried out any transaction with the NSO Group of Technologies [the makers of the Pegasus spyware]”, the Ministry of Defence declared that the “Ministry of Defence has not had any transaction with NSO Group of Technologies”.
Note, the question asked was whether “the Government” had any transactions, while the answer specified that the “Ministry of Defence” had none.
In an oblique way, the government has admitted there is something called Pegasus, though its response, to be accurate, related to the maker of the software, the NSO Group. Presumably, the Ministry’s answer was based on a careful check on its own institutions charged with the interception of communications.
Surveillance Proof, For The First Time
The Ministry's response is strange, to say the least, unless, and this is always possible, the person in charge of responding to the question did not know what the NSO Group of Technologies was all about and did not take recourse to an excuse trotted out by the government earlier that the issue was sub judice because of several PILs filed in courts! In our bureaucratic system, don’t rule out ignorance and incompetence.
The news of the Pegasus software’s malignant use had come a day before the start of the Monsoon Session of Parliament. The Information & Technology Minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, himself a target of Pegasus, had said on the floor of the House that there were several checks and balances in place and the “time-tested processes in our country are well established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance does not occur.”
Authorised surveillance, of course, does take place. There is a clutch of agencies — the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), and so on — that can, with due authorisation from the Home Secretary, intercept domestic communications. There are questions about the extent to which the authorisation procedure and its review work.
Since no clear-cut rules have been spelt out, we assume that the authorised interception of private conversation and messages would target terrorists and known criminals. But a lot of the work of the IB is to keep track of “political intelligence” or spying on the Opposition. In this, many collateral targets — businessmen, media, the judiciary, lawyers — also get pulled in. You can be sure that such targeting is entirely off the books and would be difficult to prove.
Now, for the first time, with the Pegasus programme, some sort of proof is also available. Hacked phones of some of the targeted individuals have yielded traces of the software. The problem is in determining just who could be responsible.
The List Of Targets is Telling
Now, the NSO group itself acknowledges that it deals only with governments.
We know that if in India, someone is using the software, it has to be a government agency or, someone working on behalf of the government.
We also know that at least one agency has ruled itself out — the Ministry of Defence. The military’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, which is part of the Defence Intelligence Agency, boasts of some of the most sophisticated snooping equipment. But its job is exclusively to target India’s foreign military adversaries. There is some domestic interception, mainly targeting the communication network of militants in Kashmir, but this is handled by the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Another agency involved in top-level interception of other foreign targets is the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO).
So, we are left with a number of other agencies that allegedly work according to the prescribed authorisation — IB, ED, CBI and NCB.
Some hints for where Pegasus leads to come from the list of probable targets released so far. The key Indian targets, as of now, seem to be journalists, including several who write for portals that are not friendly to the government, some who are associated with portals not necessarily against the government, and many defence correspondents, investigative reporters and Kashmiri journalists.
There is the predictable list of those in the Opposition — Rahul Gandhi, his aides, Prashant Kishore, Trinamool Congress MP Abhishek Bannerjee, former IAS officer-turned-IT Minister Vaishnaw, Prahlad Patel, another Minister, Pravin Togadia, a private secretary of former Rajasthan Chief Minister, a personal secretary to HD Kumaraswamy when he was Karnataka CM, and a security officer of HD Devegowda.
There is a lot of focus on the Northeast, with political leaders and activists from Assam, Manipur and Nagaland targeted, including the top echelons of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM). And there is the predictable list of Kashmiri figures. In the list are some Tamil politicians and activists as well. It's important to note that most of these are not the top-ranking figures, who are presumably “covered” by the IB.
The list of constitutional authorities includes Ashok Lavasa, the Former Election Commissioner. Among the Supreme Court targets are Justice Arun Mishra, now Chairman of National Human Rights Commission and considered close to the government; the former Supreme Court staffer who had accused former Chief Justice of Indian Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment; two Supreme Court registrars and several lawyers handling sensitive cases, but none related to national security.
Random, Bizarre Names On The List
Then, there are the accused in the Elgar Parishad case who may have had documents planted on their computers. There is also a random list of activists, like DP Chauhan of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Ashok Bharti of the All India Ambedkar Mahasabha, Shiv Gopal Mishra, a railway union leader, Anjani Kumar, a labour rights activist, and Jagdeep Chhokar of the Association for Democratic Reforms.
The seemingly random approach drags in Gagandeep Kang, noted virologist, and Hari Menon of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Sacked CBI officer Alok Verma, his wife, daughter and son-in-law figure, as does his rival, Rakesh Asthana, who is now Delhi Police Commissioner, and another officer AK Sharma; ED official Rajeshwar Singh is targeted along with his wife and both sisters.
The list of businesspeople includes Anil Ambani, his aide Tony Jesudasan, and the India heads of Dassault Aviation, Boeing, Saab and the French energy firm EDF.
Curiously, the list also includes a number of security officials — the head of BSF, another top BSF inspector-general, a dissident R&AW officer, an army officer who filed cases against the government on the issue of free rations, and another who complained against the dilution of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
Even more bizarre is the inclusion of the current head of the Bihar Cricket Association, Jet Airways’s Naresh Goyal, SpiceJet Chairman Ajay Singh, Essar’s Prashant Ruia, and some other businessmen and lobbyists.
Who, Really, Was In Control?
With this kind of a list, it is difficult to believe that any of the existing agencies — IB, CBI, ED, or others — were handling the operation. The list actually seems like one which has been made by adding the lists of several central and state agencies, and then more.
It has the usual bugbears of the present government — PUCL activists, left-leaning journalists, Kashmiri activists, NSCN (IM) figures, and so on, but also random figures.
What is to explain the inclusion of Justice Mishra, Anil Ambani, the heads of foreign aviation companies, or odd-balls like Pravin Togadia and Bihar Cricket Association chief Tiwary?
The list suggests that this was an entirely off-the-book exercise run by people at the very top of the government, who were associated with not just law and order issues but with the administration as well, dealing with issues such as those relating to the Rafale deal and the CBI controversy involving Verma and Asthana. Equally, it was concerned with politics at all levels, from the top rungs to states like Karnataka, Nagaland and Tamil Nadu, as well.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out where these lines would intersect in our governmental system.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. 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.)