October 19, 2005

Leaking Ship of the Indian Navy

After facing the biggest embarrassment of commercial espionage in its war room, the navy prepares to punish the officers who hawked confidential information.
By Sandeep Unnithan
INTELLIGENCE FAILURE: The naval headquarters in South Block
It is a nondescript conference room with a dozen swivel chairs, computers and overhead projection systems. But for its location deep within the sandstone precincts of the naval headquarters in South Block, the Maritime Operations Centre, colloquially called the war room, could have passed off as another corporate boardroom. Except that it is the nerve centre of the Directorate of Naval Operations where the chief of naval staff and his principal officers receive their daily morning updates on all matters related to the force. Access to the room is severely restricted and its standalone computers, which brim with sensitive operational data, are kept away from the Internet to ensure they are hack-proof.
But despite all precautions, the ship has sprung a leak. The tip-off came from an unlikely source, the Indian Air Force Intelligence. They had placed Wing Commander S.L. Surve, an officer posted at the Air Defence Directorate, under surveillance for a suspected extramarital liaison. In April, a search of Surve's residence revealed a Pen Drive crammed with detailed specifications of the navy's equipment shopping list-offshore patrol craft, diving support craft, electronic chart displays, breathing air compressors. This information could give a prospective vendor a headstart over competition when the navy floated tenders for the equipment. Surve had got the Pen Drive from a retired naval officer friend, lieutenant Kulbushan Parashar.
The naval intelligence was alerted and the source of the information was narrowed down to a computer in the war room. They decided to place some of the 25-odd officers posted there under surveillance. In June, one of them was picked up for questioning while he was on his way to catch a flight to Mumbai. He was none other than Captain Kashyap Kumar, director, Naval Operations. In July, after ascertaining that the leak was serious enough to warrant a thorough investigation, the navy set up a board of inquiry (BoI) headed by Rear Admiral Ganesh Mahadevan. Joint investigation by the Naval Intelligence and the Intelligence Bureau and detailed interrogation of three war room officers- Kumar, Commander V. Rana, who heads the Ocean Management Department, and Commander V.K. Jha, in charge of war room security-together with e-mails found in computers seized from their homes, swung the needle of suspicion south towards Mumbai.
The recipients of this commercial information were three Mumbai-based retired naval officers: lieutenant K. Shankaran, commander K.K. Sharma and Parashar. Shankaran, a glib, well-connected former diver, ran Shanks Ocean Engineering, a firm which dabbled in outsourcing contracts for the Indian Navy and represented several western and Indian firms in offshore work. He was related to Admiral Arun Prakash, a fact which the navy chief immediately brought to the attention of Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Shankaran's firm had been blacklisted by the navy after a 1996 explosion onboard the fleet tanker INS Jyoti but surprisingly he bucked the ban to continue business with the force.

The troika used the three officers to procure inside information from the war room. Their pointsman was Commander Rana who was in touch with both Parashar and Surve. But what commercial details did they want from the war room which is not concerned with procurement? The answer, say defence officials, lies in its role as a conference room and the fact that its computers were frequently used to make presentations on acquisition plans of the various naval departments and their future requirements. Some of these presentations remained in the computers and the officials downloaded the PowerPoint presentations made to the naval brass onto Pen Drives which were then forwarded to the retired officers. In exchange, they received money, though the amount is yet to be established.
"The information was mainly of commercial nature and of little operational significance,'' says a senior naval officer, reflecting the navy's stance on the significance of the leak all through the inquiry. "But what if there is a leak of vital information next time?'' asks vice-admiral (retd) Vinod Pasricha. "This case calls for harsh punishment of the guilty to ensure that this does not recur.''
The BoI has found the three officers guilty of "gross misconduct and impropriety" and recommended their court martial. Its verdict has been sent to the Ministry of Defence for further action. The retired officials can be prosecuted only by a civilian authority since they fall outside the purview of the Navy Act.
But it is the BoI's wide-ranging recommendations on data security in a wired world which will be of keen interest to armed services which see information warfare-undermining the enemy's data and information while simultaneously defending and leveraging one's own information edge-as a key to winning future wars. The Indian Navy, which prides itself as the first of the three services to realise the importance of information warfare, is now fighting a defensive battle to prevent leaks. USB ports (where Pen Drives are plugged to) are being blanked out, access to war room computers is being restricted and serving officials are being told to steer clear of retired personnel, especially those who run commercial concerns.
The leakage calls for a relook at the navy's procedure for whetting officials posted to sensitive posts. But even as the navy holds fast to its stand that no operational data was compromised, they are still shaking their heads in disbelief at the conduct of the three middle-rung officials in the sensitive directorate, bemoaning consumerism and the lure of easy money which forced the officers to sell secret information. "No level of security is of any use if the people entrusted with guarding it compromise it themselves," concedes a senior armed forces official. That could well be the most disturbing aspect of the leak.

No comments: