Sex, spies and secrets: How officials fall into honey traps
The Indian Army officer who fell into a honey trap in Dhaka did the only thing that you should do under the circumstances: He told a superior officer what had happened. He may suffer embarrassment and a pothole in his career, but he can sleep in peace knowing that he did not betray his country and do jail time for doing so. Honey traps, the intelligence parlance for seducing and then blackmailing a target into working for you, are probably as old as sex. It was sex that persuaded the Israelite Samson to reveal to Palestinian Delilah that his long hair was the secret of his supernatural strength.
Sex and seduction have been used in espionage ever since. Few will deny that the overpowering allure of sex can make you lose your mind, and this is what a crafty intelligence handler will employ. It also happens to be easier to set up. Indians, being relatively more inhibited about sex than many other people make good targets and there have been numerous instances of Indian officials falling for the honey trap. There is the story of how a young diplomat fell for a ballerina in Russia in the 1950s. But when the KGB approached him to work for them, he laughed at their face. He then took a flight to New Delhi and confessed all to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who let him off with a caution. The man later rose to the highest offices in the land.
Other stories did not work out so well. K.V. Unnikrishnan of Research & Analysis Wing fell for a Pan Am airhostess who turned out to be a US intelligence agent. In the 1990s, there was the story of our Naval attache in Islamabad who was honey trapped by a nurse in Karachi and pressed to work for the ISI. He came back to India and tried to convince the authorities that he had recruited the nurse to work for India.
But on interrogation, he broke down and confessed. Since there was no evidence that he actually passed information to the ISI, he was dismissed from service and not jailed. There have been other serious instances of honey trapped individuals who were spared punishment because there was simply not enough evidence for conviction. The most notorious one is that of an IB officer who would have become the chief of the organisation had he not been detected y the IB itself in an undisclosed relationship with an American agent.
The best known recent example was the systematic manner in which the East German secret service under Markus Wolff used young men to seduce middle-aged West German secretaries working for senior officials. In this way they harvested a huge amount of intelligence. Wolf was to write in his autobiography, "When it began, I had no idea of the harvest it would bring." Such was their power that one secretary refused to believe that she had been honey trapped, declaring "He did really love me."
No doubt the Americans, too, used honey traps to get at East Bloc secrets, but we know more about the latter's use of the technique because they lost the Cold War and their secrets are there for all to see.
The most worrisome aspect of honey traps for India is its extensive use by the Chinese intelligence. There have been several instances of Indian officials - of RAW and the Indian Foreign Service - who have been trapped in China.
In 2009, the British counter intelligence service, MI5 distributed a 14-page booklet to various British banks and businesses entitled "The Threat from Chinese Espionage" which spoke of an extensive Chinese effort to trap people through long-term sexual relationships. Some time back, an aide of the then prime minister of UK, Gordon Brown who was picked up by a Chinese woman at a disco and the next morning found that his official Blackberry was missing.
But the case that has made waves in UK in recent times is that of the 26 year old Russian girl Katia Zatuliveter who had an affair with a 65-year old Liberal Democratic MP Mike Hancock who happens to be in the Defence Committee of the British Parliament and worked in his office as a researcher. The British counter-intelligence service MI5 wanted to deport her from UK, but she filed a case with the Special Immigration Appeals Commission which upheld her case last month.
President of SIAC Mr Justice Mitting said, "Nothing in the material which we have analysed suggests, let alone demonstrates, that the appellant exploited her relationships for the purposes of the Russian state." The panel actually said that her relationship with the MP had been "enduring and genuine".
This is the problem with honey traps in the modern world. Sexual relationships are relatively free, and the issue really is not so much about being trapped, which can happen to the most discreet person, but whether or not you then do the bidding of the foreign power.
It is obvious that if you are a diplomat, intelligence officer or a military officer you are a prime target in a foreign country. You must employ your commonsense when entering into relationships. It is not all that difficult.
Indian diplomats are no exception to falling to honey traps and the story goes back to the days of Jawahar Lal Nehru, first prime minister of independent India.
The case of Madhuri Gupta, an Indian diplomat in Islamabad, is unique in the sense that usually women play the bait to trap male officers. Pakistan has always been one of India's most challenging and key diplomatic missions. Obviously, Islamabad features on the list of world capitals where diplomats are advised to exercise extra caution.
Guidelines are provided to Indian Foreign Service and intelligence officers on overseas missions. These include keeping personal obligations to minimal, being sensitive towards foreign intelligence agencies and non-disclosure of information voluntarily that could be detrimental to foreign and security policies.
Apart from Islamabad, Beijing is another crucial mission. During the Soviet era and the days of iron curtain, bachelor diplomats were not posted in the eastern European countries. In the late 1970s, a diplomat was trapped in the Polish capital, Warsaw, and had to be recalled.
Way back in the 1950s an Indian diplomat was honey trapped in Moscow. When the Russian intelligence agency, the KGB, confronted the diplomat with the pictures of his activities with the girl agent, the diplomat apprised the Indian ambassador about the whole issue. Nehru, who was the then external affairs minister, let off the young diplomat with a mild caution. This explains the thin line that exists between a diplomat falling prey to a honey trap and turning a traitor.
But Madhuri Gupta, 53, posted as the second secretary (press and information) at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, crossed the thin line. She was arrested on April 22, 2010 by the special cell of Delhi Police for passing on sensitive information to ISI agents, she had befriended. On January 7, 2012, a Delhi Court will pronounce its order on framing of charges against Gupta.
RAW officer K.V. Unnikrishnan was another Indian officer convicted and punished for falling prey to the charms of a suspected agent in the disguise of a Pan Am air hostess. Unnikrishnan was then posted at the RAW office in Chennai and was dealing with the LTTE. He was arrested in 1987 and jailed for leaking out sensitive information.
- With inputs from Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury in New Delhi