Former Chief of Indian Intelligence Speaks Out on “How to Survive in this Harsh World”
An Interview With Vikram Sood

It is necessary to understand India’s diplomatic philosophy to avoid the battles we are witnessing becoming an endless World War. The Liberty spoke to the former head of India’s intelligence agency which was formed to serve as the first line of defense (as of October 20th, 2023).


Vikram Sood

Vikram Sood

Sood is the former head of India’s intelligence agency: RAW, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). He has served as a career intelligence officer for 31 years.


―― To inform our Japanese readers, could you tell us about the situation in India when RAW was established? What was its most important role?

Mr. Sood: I’ll start with a brief history of intelligence services.

Until 1947, when we were not free, the British ran the intelligence. They ran their foreign intelligence from London, and their internal intelligence, naturally, from Delhi. And after independence, in 1947, we had only one intelligence agency for political, military, and everything, the Intelligence Bureau. And this continued till, right in the beginning, in 1947 ― since Pakistan attacked us in Kashmir, we had to fight that war. We had very little intelligence about that. Then in 1962, we had a war with China. Again, the intelligence was not adequate. Then we had a war with Pakistan again. Pakistan attacked us in 1965. And we were a little short of intelligence again. So the government decided that, like in all other Western democratic countries, for the country of our size and the threats that we have, we should have two agencies, one for external and one for internal. In September 1968, the Research and Analysis Wing, RAW, was formed and charged with the responsibility of looking after all external intelligence.

And soon after that, in 1971, we had a war with Pakistan. They attacked us as they had their problems in East Pakistan, and then the war started. The RAW had a contribution to make in that war, and therefore, this was also a creation of an external intelligence agency because the workload had shifted, and we were able to concentrate on this aspect of foreign intelligence collection. R&AW has been in existence since 1968. There have been further intelligence agencies created like the National Technical Research Organization, which is like the US NSA, for SIGINT intelligence, signal, and technical intelligence. The military has its own Defense Intelligence Agency and Military Intelligence, the Air Intelligence, and the Naval Intelligence. We also have an economic intelligence wing. We are now spread out with a number of intelligence agencies and protective agencies functioning together. There is a Joint Intelligence Committee where intelligence information from different agencies is pooled together. Then we have a National Security Council, which is above all this, which then decides on the policies.

―― I see. Thank you for giving me a brief history of RAW and other intelligence organizations. Now, since you mentioned the joint intelligence organization, which is very crucial, can I ask about that joint role that allows all the intelligence organizations to function together? Regarding this point, let me mention the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai. I’m so sorry about the casualties of that terrifying attack…

It is reported that the CIA gave RAW some kind of information, but something may have not worked well, then the law enforcement in Mumbai may have not gotten that information correctly. In Japan, we don’t even have enough of an intelligence joint community, so we are far behind. But could you give us your insight into how crucial it is to have a joint intelligence community to combine all those intelligence organizations?

Mr. Sood: Yes . If you have one agency only collecting information, the point is, has it got everything? We don’t know.

So maybe the Military Intelligence got one part of the information. The NTRO has got something else on the SIGINT or communication intelligence. Besides, these days, you get intelligence on the internet and social media, as well. That has to be put together someplace. Somebody has to coordinate.

If I tell you that I heard that tomorrow there is going to be an attack, okay, now that is not yet intelligence. That’s only “information.” Then I have to process that and say, “Who told you that? Do I have somebody else telling me that? Is it possible?” Then you verify with other agencies. How good is the source of information? etc., etc. Then you assess it and make it into intelligence and say, “Yes, it is going to happen,” or, “No, it won’t happen. It can’t happen.” So intelligence is not just like newspapers ― sorry, newspapers collect information and feed it, never mind if it’s right or wrong. We can’t afford that. The intelligence agency must be able to substantiate what it is saying, or it has to be correlated with other agencies’ information and made into one story.

As we were saying the CIA gave RAW information. I don’t know. I was not in service then. So what you know is as much as I know about this information being given by ― but I do know that there was some information. It came out in the media also that there was something expected. And then the information was passed down to the local authorities who then gave it to the target area, like the hotel. And then after a few days, when nothing happened, they called off the security. So, when the terrorists came, there was nobody available to protect us. Nobody was waiting for them.

It seems that the attack took place and we were not quite ready for it. Now, information will never be full. It will be in parts. It could be information 10 men who may be coming. They’ll probably come in November or 16th November, and they might come by air, but actually, they came by boat. So, these are the kinds of things that happen in intelligence. Nobody gets the complete laid-down picture, names, and places. It doesn’t normally happen like that. You have to build it.

The most important part of intelligence is to convey it to the right place at the right time. And if it is in bits and pieces, somebody has to correlate and make it into one report. The same thing happened on 9/11. They had some information, but they didn’t put it together.

―― Yes. Exactly.

Mr. Sood: They missed it. And the same might have happened now in Israel. We don’t know yet.

―― So true. All of those experiences tell us how hard it is to operate intelligence organizations properly to protect our countries, right?

Mr. Sood: Really. Yeah.

―― I’m pretty sure all countries are struggling to operate intelligence communities. For us, the Japanese people, as you know, we still don’t have the anti-espionage act. So we are far behind in this field. It may look very weird that the Japanese government still doesn’t have that protection that all normal countries should have. If you don’t mind, could you give us your honest view of our current situation?

Mr. Sood: I tell you, intelligence collection is always a difficult job ― very difficult ― especially if you’re collecting foreign intelligence because you’re operating in a foreign country without any protection. Any law enforcement agency will not protect those who are spying on their country. They will have their anti-espionage act and bring the person in. So, it’s difficult first to find a source, then to cultivate him. All that takes time.

Now, up to a few years ago, let’s say about 30 years ago or so, before the technical age or the communication revolution, two things have happened. One is that, previously, threats were very well-defined. “This is the military strength. This is what they hold. This is what their capabilities are. This is their weak spot.” You can make that out. “These are the bridges that you can attack or the railroads. This is what you can do for a counter-offensive.” So, you give intelligence about that. You could pick it up because it was available, sometimes open intelligence and sometimes secret intelligence. Now, I must add here that a lot of the information used to be, well, and probably is, from open sources. Not just secret sources. Open sources. Then you put that together and make a story.

But since terrorism has become a threat, they operate in cells. They operate through stealth, without any written codes, without any normal methods. They operate under cover. You don’t know who they are. There’s no uniform for them. There is no, “They’re building their headquarters or this is their sub-headquarters.” We don’t know anything. They’re just persons on the street, maybe. So, they are the ones who are most difficult to track. And if you have terrorism, it is very difficult to track. And if you have religious terrorism, it’s even worse. These are the threats the intelligence world must deal with.

The means of collecting intelligence about them is now dependent on having a source in that organization, having a source in a cell of that organization that is planning the attack. Sometimes the lower levels of the terrorist group don’t know what they’re supposed to do. Only the hierarchy knows. We don’t get to get to the bottom of the thing. Therefore, intelligence collection about the modern-day threat is very, very difficult. You have to rely on intercepts. You have to use social media. You have to read the social media carefully because there’s a message in that. They use Telegram, Signal, and other platforms to communicate. Everything has to be watched. Then you might get a picture. And then if you are lucky, you can get the right one.

The Irish Republican Army tried to assassinate Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister of the time. She had a narrow escape. The bomb went off. She wasn’t there. Then the IRA told her, sent her a message, “We have to be lucky only once. You have to be lucky all the time.” So that is the nature of the threat. That is why intelligence agencies are so concerned about this threat. The other threat is nuclear, which can be devastating. And I’m just scaling it down. The everyday threat is terror. The nuclear threat is the big terror threat. Intelligence agencies have to watch both very carefully. Signals may not come in either case.

―― Actually, the situation India is facing is much more severe than the situation Japan faces, because you, the Indian people, are facing a lot of terrorism, especially from Muslims. So the situation must be much more severe. As you mentioned, we actually can’t get enough information from news outlets or other internet stuff, so the agency must work as a cell inside the terrorist organization group. It sounds extremely tough.

Now, could you tell us about the balance between being independent and cooperating with other countries’ intelligence organizations? Because to have as much intelligence as we can, it should be crucial to get intelligence from other countries’ organizations. But also, it should be important to keep our independence as all of our countries have sovereignties. Could you tell us the importance and accurate balance of being independent and cooperating with foreign agencies?

Mr. Sood: Yes. Intelligence cooperation is becoming more and more important globally because terror has become international.

And not only terror, you have many of these international criminal organizations, they run human trafficking, narcotics smuggling, and immigration rackets, which can eventually become a threat to you. Because the person who is doing arms smuggling is probably also connected or himself doing narcotic smuggling and smuggling of human beings. These three put together would help the terror organizations. Governments must keep a watch on this aspect of terrorism. And this cannot be done by one agency alone and needs cooperation from other countries. The problem arises when most of the terror that, say, India is facing, originates in one country. It’s the Pakistani-based terror organizations that have been giving us trouble. We cannot expect cooperation from them on this subject. Right?

―― Right.

Mr. Sood: We will get it from other countries who might get this intelligence in the course of their keeping a watch on this kind of a thing.

The problem is every country has its own priorities and requirements. You see, when George Bush declared a global war on terror after 9/11, remember what he said. He said, “We will cooperate with all countries to unearth all those terror organizations which have a global reach.” Okay. By this, he actually meant groups like Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and so on. It did not include groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed which are based in Pakistan and are India-specific. Thus for India, the global war on terror didn’t mean a thing.

―― I see.

Mr. Sood: See, we didn’t have Taliban as terrorists. We didn’t have Al-Qaeda as terrorists in India. So what cooperation would they give us? Nothing.

They could only choose and give something if they got to know. But at that time, they had to be very friendly with Pakistan because Pakistan was helping them fight Al-Qaeda. And Pakistan was playing the game very cleverly. It would now and then, every two months or three months, arrest an Al-Qaeda operative and hand him over to the Americans, but they never touched the Taliban who were protecting Al-Qaeda, but they didn’t do anything to help capture or arrest any Taliban because they thought the Taliban would be the power in Afghanistan after the Americans left. You see, every country plays this game according to its own security priorities. And it is not necessary that if we cooperate, we will get everything. It’s a very difficult game. It’s not easy, but ultimately, I think, Mayuko, we have to be self-reliant on most of these things. Anything that we get from other agencies is a bonus. And that’s all that it is. But there is another aspect also. Five Anglo-Saxon countries.

―― Yeah. Five Eyes.

Mr. Sood: The Five Eyes. They cooperate with each other very closely, and they exchange information not only about adversaries but also friends. They’d been listening in on Angela Merkel at one stage. They listened in on the French also. So naturally, they are upset that they do it, but that’s the way it is. Cooperation is necessary, but never always satisfactory.

―― It’s a very harsh reality.

Mr. Sood: Yes. This is a harsh reality.

―― Yes. So surviving in the intelligence field, including cooperation with other countries is very harsh. Now, may I ask about your view on President Biden’s rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan? It must affect Indian diplomacy to some extent.

Mr. Sood: From Afghanistan? Oh, it was a terrible thing to do.

―― Yeas If you don’t mind, could you share your view on that? Because it was not only a withdrawal but a very rapid withdrawal, and caused the Taliban’s capture of capital. That outcome must affect Indian diplomatic as well. So could you tell us about your view on that?

Mr. Sood: The first thing that happened in Afghanistan was that all along they fought the wrong war against the wrong enemy in the wrong place.

―― For 20 years.

Mr. Sood: For 20 years. Because the Afghans were not attacking America; it was the Arabs. What was based in Afghanistan were the Arabs like Osama bin Laden up to a point, and then they disappeared into Pakistan. I’m sure the Americans knew about this, but they didn’t want to, or could not do anything about it. Or they wanted to wait for a particular time to take action. So you spend 20 years promising a country freedom, democracy, and economic well-being. And then suddenly one night, you leave. You leave behind weapons. You leave behind vehicles. You leave behind everything and just go away. What does the rest of the world think? It thinks that it has hurt American credibility in the region, that they can go away anytime or give up friends suddenly.

Even in the case of the Middle East ― I’m just digressing a bit ― they were very friendly with Muammar Gaddafi at one stage. They were very friendly with Saddam Hussein. Then suddenly, they become enemies, and they are killed in the most atrocious manner. Now they may not be good men as far as the Americans are concerned. But to kill your enemy like this, kill him in a gutter in Tripoli, or hang a president of a country, how do you think the Arab street reacted to that? For them, their Arab leader had been treated like this, that they had been so badly treated by the Americans. So there is that much anger in the Arab world. That is one aspect.

And the other is the aspect of countries like India. We know that America is an important country. It is good to be America’s friend. We need them. But how far do we go? We are prepared to be America’s friend. But we can’t be its ally because we don’t know how it will work for India. After it became the sole superpower in 1991, the United States could have co-opted Russia instead of trying to push it further. And Russia on the side of the West, with its resources and size, would have been an asset. But no, they didn’t do it.

―― Yes. We, The Liberty Magazine, believe that the US provoked Russia to invade Ukraine by expanding NATO against Russia. They knew that adding Ukraine and Georgia into NATO meant a de facto declaration of war against Russia. But they were about to do that. We can say it’s natural for Russia to invade Ukraine to protect their land. But as you may know, since Japan relies on US military power ― it’s a very harsh reality that we can’t protect ourselves ― given that situation, almost all Japanese people just don’t know the real background of this Ukraine war.

But as you mentioned, sometimes the US takes terrible diplomatic action even against their friends like suddenly abandoning their friendship. It’s one of the worst aspects of the US, I guess. Then what we would like our Japanese leaders is to know the reality of diplomacy. So your point is very crucial for us.

Mr. Sood: The one thing that America has lost after Afghanistan is credibility and reliability. It showed that any day they can abandon you. In Iraq, you got the feeling that they will make an excuse to attack you, say you have WMD and you have Al Qaeda when they didn’t have it. You make a false accusation, attack, destroy, and then leave. You come to Afghanistan on the false promise that “I will save you. I will do this, and I will finish off terrorism.” And then one morning, you just go away. Leave the poor Afghans in the hands of the Taliban who they had come to fight. Four presidents of America fought the Taliban and gave Afghanistan back to the Taliban.

Now, if the US as a superpower is going to act only in its own self-interest, and there is no compromise in this, then an arrangement with a superpower for smaller countries is always going to be one-sided. The US, with its global interests, has said that it is going to protect the world with its 800 military bases, spending a trillion dollars on defense, 17 or 18 intelligence agencies, and the world divided into military commands, along with military tie-ups like NATO, were actually protecting their own national interest.

―― That is a problem.

Mr. Sood: Yes, when the Soviet Union fell, the first thing the US Secretary of State told the Russians was NATO would not move one inch east. Okay. But that didn’t happen. They kept going. They kept drawing in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Everybody was drawn into NATO. Then Putin started telling them, “Ukraine is the red line. Don’t come here.” There were several American writers, and strategic thinkers, who advised the government not to go into Ukraine. “Don’t take NATO into Ukraine. We don’t need it, but Russia needs Ukraine independent. It will not attack Ukraine, but it will not want it to be part of NATO.” They did not listen and lost out again. Now today, it’s clearly a case where the United States had overconfidence in its own ability to battle and conquer through Ukraine. And it underestimated the Russian capability to protect its interests.

They overestimated themselves. They underestimated the adversary. And as in the case of Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and their ally Pakistan. Ukraine is in the same case. Overestimating their own strengths and underestimating Russian strengths. Actually, I thought this was supposed to be Biden’s war to win in time for the next elections. I don’t think that is happening now. So we have to learn to be more self-reliant. And when we Indians talk of self-reliance on many things, the Americans don’t like it.

They don’t want that. They want other countries to be dependent. They want Japan to be dependent. They want India to be dependent. Certain things you should not do, only they should do. So as Kissinger once said, you may be familiar with this statement, he said, ” It may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.” See?

―― Yes.

Mr. Sood: So we have that peculiar situation in the world today where the sole superpower ― look at the state democracy in America today.

―― Indeed. Could you tell us your view on how Indian people see America’s democracy? The US itself is losing its credibility of democracy. Because they invade other country’s sovereignty, and do everything to protect their national interest. How do Indian people view Americans’ democracy?

Mr. Sood: Up to a point till a few years ago, we really believed that it was the only country that was truly democratic. But the more you read about the U.S., the more they behave, the more things that are coming out. Look at the way ― they had elections and had Trump winning. And look at how it was taken by the rest of the Americans. And then when his turn came to go, when the elections were being held again, look at the way they came down into the streets. The law-and-order system has broken down in America. A section of part of democracy is law enforcement.

If you’re not able to enforce the law, if six people go into a store and rob it, it’s okay. Everyone will do anything. They might go after them, but it can be done. We see repeatedly scenes in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles of people coming into the store, stealing everything, going away, and the shop stewards are watching. What does this mean?

I think it is a “controlled democracy” now. There are powers behind ― I think there are powers behind the whole system. Control of the system has become increasingly financial and monetary.

Three large investment companies hold 80% of the money. Well, that’s a lot. Do you think they don’t have a vested interest in following a particular line? Do you think the political masters can ignore them?


Mr. Sood: You had the military-industrial complex which could make the congressmen go in a particular direction. These people can do it even further. Democracy itself, as we know it, is changing. We cannot invent anything new. It’s probably the only thing that is good for us. But it’s losing its shine. And I don’t know where it will end up.

―― Yes So the situation in the US itself shows us how democracy is failing.

Mr. Sood: Yeah. I don’t know whether it’s failing, but it’s certainly under great stress. And unless we’re able to get out of it somehow, because the other fear now is going to be in America, in Europe, the movement of immigrants from abroad. The illegal immigrants. You’ve seen what has been happening on the southern border of the United States. You have immigrants coming into Europe, mostly from the West, from the Arab world and North Africa. They are Muslim. Many of them are radicalized. They will come and change the demographic patterns of the countries. They’re not assimilated into the system. Have you read my book? Have you come across it?

―― Yes, I did.

Mr. Sood: The Ultimate Goal. I just want to read out just two lines from it.

―― Oh, thank you.

Mr. Sood: The Ultimate Goal, in chapter 8, I begin by saying, within quotes, “By means of your democracy, we shall invade you. By means of our religion, we shall dominate you.” This is what an Islamic scholar said at a synod at the Vatican in October 1999. This was a Muslim Islamist scholar saying that they’re going to rule. And when Islam says that Islam believes in peace, what they mean is there will be peace in the world when the whole world is Islamic. Till then, there will be wars between the Islamic world and the non-Islamic world. This is the core belief of the fundamentalist Muslims. The average Muslim may not believe it, but that does not matter. I mean, the average German wasn’t a Nazi. But the Nazis controlled Germany and Europe up to a point, for a short while maybe, they did control.

These are the things that are happening. In “Clash of Civilizations”, Huntington wrote that, in the 20th century, the clash was between liberal democracies and Marxist-Leninist communism. Right? In the 21st century, there will be a continuing and deeply conflictual relationship between Islam and Christianity. So that’s what we are facing. I think that’s how it is working out. That the mood is changing in the world. And unless we secure ourselves, unless a country like Japan brings in their own counterespionage law to protect yourselves from threats that may come from anywhere –and you don’t have very friendly neighbors, either.

―― Indeed. May I ask about your view on the US nuclear umbrella? Because in Japan, many people, including authorities in government, still strongly believe that, “Oh, it’s just fine because the US will protect us because we are under the US nuclear umbrella.” But the situation is rapidly changing, and I am concerned that it no longer works that way. So how do you see that?

Mr. Sood: These umbrellas are all fine in writing, on the written word and the promise. But will it work? How will it work? If there is a nuclear explosion, or God forbid, , many people will never get to know what happened. You are the only country that has experienced this horrible thing. But how do you protect another country by saying that I give you an umbrella, a nuclear umbrella, where when push comes to shove, when the actual action happens, what would be the consideration in Washington, DC? We don’t know. We just don’t know.

I would always go for self-reliance. You have two neighbors with nuclear weapons. And they don’t have to make decisions based on democracies. Only one man will decide. And there’s no opposition, maybe, to him. You have to rely more on that person’s decision not to use the bomb than to rely on the fact that, once the damage is done, somebody will come and rescue you. Or give a preemptive threat to prevent a nuclear attack. These are imponderables. These are not what I can define or say yes or no to But maybe in your security setup, they might be talking about it. They should be talking about it.

We also went nuclear because we were not sure which way things would go. We were not sure after 1971 whether America would be our friend. After all, they sent their aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal to support Pakistan. Kissinger used to meet Huang Hua, the Chinese foreign minister in New York and other places, and sort of hint to them that “If during this war, you create a diversion on the India-China border, America will understand.” Fortunately, the Chinese saw through the game and didn’t do it. But that’s how countries operate in the pursuit of self-interest. Kissinger and Nixon didn’t want their party spoiled because he was getting ready to go and meet Mao. And Pakistan was helping them. Therefore, they didn’t want to annoy Pakistan. So, you see how equations can change at the last minute? And despite agreements, you can say, no, I won’t do it, and find another reason not to do it.

―― This will be the last question. Could you share your honest view on the current situation of Japan? I know I asked a similar question already, but again, could you share your honest view on the Japanese current situation? The reason why I would like to ask this question is that I believe the Japanese current administration is just following the Biden administration’s policy and Japan doesn’t have its diplomatic policy. But also, I believe that as an Asian economic country, Japan should be able to pave the way to protect the peace in Asia. India has its own diplomatic strategy, not America’s. I desire Japan to be a real sovereign country and have its own diplomatic strategy like India.

Mr. Sood: I think the situation is that Japan has played a low-key, low-profile role. It needs to do two or three things, in my view. You are a very important country. You’re an economic power globally. You have to retain that position and your global status. Therefore, you need to be well-informed about the activities of other nations regarding you and among themselves, and what they’re trying to do to you, extracting information from you, intelligence from you, secrets from you, whatever. That is one aspect. The other is if you want to have an independent policy, you must have an independent strike force militarily. You must have independent defense agencies, an army, and navy, and air force. You have to do that.

Your power comes from two sources, your economic power and your military power. Then it leads to a perception. How is Japan perceived by the rest of the world? How is Japan perceived in India? Is it just making Toyotas and Sony and stuff like that? Or are they strong, militarily, and economically strong, to be able to defend themselves on their own? So there has to be a kind of a change of attitude. You need to develop your own means of defense, and even offense if necessary. You cannot depend on others, not in this world. They will come to you only when it suits them, which you otherwise know. This is my view. I’m sorry if I gave you any offense I just would like to answer your question. I would not have expressed this otherwise. But I’m not trying to ask you to follow a policy. I’m only asking you to consider these aspects.

―― Thank you so much. Thank you for sharing your view. I believe for Japanese people, it’s so important to know your points. It may be harsh to face, but to protect ourselves as a sovereign country.

Mr. Sood: Yeah. You have so much value to your country. You have so many achievements. You can’t just let it go.

―― We are very honored to have you in a publication.

Mr. Sood: Thank you for listening to me.

―― You gave me a lot of insight.

Mr. Sood: Well, it’s a hard world.

―― It really is.

Former Chief of Indian Intelligence Speaks Out on “How to Survive in this Harsh World”
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