Since time immemorial, people have been spying or been spied upon. Centuries ago, when Chanakya and Sun Tzu were considered as the greatest philosophers and strategists in war and politics, both of them heavily emphasized in their books, “Art of War” and “Chanakya Niti”, the necessity of acquiring intelligence from the rivals.
Even with wide globalization, the competitive spirit between countries along with a sense of self-preservation has remained the same. Advancement in technology and deeper understanding in psychology and behavioural sciences has led to improvement in espionage and surveillance tactics.
During World War II, Richard Sorge was considered one of the best spies in Europe. At the age of 18, he enlisted in the German Army just after the outbreak of World War I. He was recruited as an agent for Soviet Intelligence, with the cover of a journalist and was sent to various European countries to assess the possibility of communist revolutions.
In 1920, he got captivated with the communist party building a new Soviet Union, and hence began to work for the military intelligence. In 1933, he was sent to Germany for a secret mission, he joined the Nazi Party and started working for one of the major German newspaper, Frankfurter Zeitung.
Shortly, he was sent to Japan as the paper’s Asian correspondent. Sorge, being a German and having Nazism personified political views made a lot of Japanese politicians share their views with them which he immediately sent back to Russia.
His most famous work was during 1940 – 1941 when he sent back some top-notch information to Stalin, who presided over the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953 and was one of the most powerful dictators of all time.
It all started when Hitler signed directive number 21, Operation Barbarossa on 18th December 1940, his plan to invade the Soviet Union. Less than two weeks later, Stalin received the information on his desk regarding operation Barbarossa from his agents in Europe, the intelligence was confirmed by Stalin’s key spy in Japan, Richard Sorge.
Barbarossa was a top-secret plan, only eight people knew about it in Germany, but Stalin didn’t believe his own intelligence. He couldn’t accept the fact that his intelligence was so good that they had acquired such information. When Stalin learnt that Sorge was the source, his only remark was, “it’s provocation, he is a double agent”. Stalin was receiving multiple other reports on the attack, which eventually made it hard to believe what Sorge was putting in front of him.
However, all this didn’t stop Sorge, he was desperate, he sent multiple accounts to Stalin regarding the attack on June 22nd, but Stalin was deaf to all pleas, blind to all the reports that were coming to him during that period. On June 22nd, 1941, Hitler’s armies struck, resulting into was a devastating attack.
After eight years undercover Sorge was unmasked and imprisoned by the Japanese military intelligence. He was a clever, imaginative and fearless Soviet Union agent of World War II who made a substantial contribution to the Russian war effort. The information he sent back to Russia was priceless. Later in 1964 Sorge was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union.
Post-World War 2, the US maintained a political rivalry with Soviet Union and its allies. Aside from the nuclear arsenal and military development, the struggle for dominance made these superpowers rival up against each other’s rankings in the Olympics and technological advancements such as the Space Race. The competitiveness between the western allies and the Soviet Union caused an increase in intelligence gathering, which was called the “Cold War espionage.”
Klaus Fuchs was a German theoretical physicist and a spy. During the second world war, Fuchs got the citizenship of Britain and started contributing to “Tube Alloy” – an atomic bomb research project. After transferring to Columbia University in 1943, he soon started to work on the Manhattan project – carried out by the combined forces of America, Canada and Britain to develop nuclear weapons, and contributed significant theoretical calculations. Little did the allies know that he was a spy who supplied this information to Soviet Union. Though he was caught in 1950, he continued his academia life in Germany after spending nine years in prison. With the sudden upsurge in spies in both the states and Soviet Union, the rivals started using unconventional methods to gather intelligence.
The CIA started a program in which ravens, cats and other animals were equipped with electronic transmitters and trained to eavesdrop conversations of cold war adversaries. The U.S Navy ran a marine mammal program which aimed to train bottle nose dolphins to use their bio sonar skills to retrieve lost items and discover mines in the sea. Sea lions were also trained to catch unauthorized swimmers.
Going in an alienated land, adjusting to life, each new identity brings without deterring from the mission takes a toll on the brain. Remember Detective Adrian Pimento from the popular show Brooklyn Nine Nine? In the series, when Pimento had gone undercover and worked for a mobster for 12 years, he was forced to commit heinous crimes which eventually rendered him mentally unstable. This isn’t completely new information as it’s often recorded that spies get PTSD after their missions. Not only does the job require one to be mentally stable throughout the operation, it also requires one to make difficult decisions, which can result in agents having traumatic experiences.
The importance of vigilance and psychoanalysis in strategizing against the opponent was quite observed in the Khalistan movements. The Khalistanis were separatists who aimed to create a sovereign state from Punjab, for the Sikhs. The movement took a violent turn in the 1980s, and reached its peak when the Pakistani Prime minister took this opportunity and declared his support for the establishment of Khalistan and even arranged ISI to train the Khalistani militants.
To avoid arrest, a reputed militant, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and other militants took shelter in the Harmandir Sahib (Golden temple) complex, who transformed the temple into an armoury and entrenched the sanctum as their headquarters. Indira Gandhi, then Prime minister of India, launched operation Blue Star aiming to remove him and other militants from the shrine. Though the operation was successful, its poor execution by the military caused high civilian casualties. The Sikh community saw it as an attack on their religion due to which riots emerged throughout the country. Five months after the operation, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards, and the country saw immense anti-Sikh riots.
Even after such a massacre, militants continued to use the Golden Temple as their headquarters. In 1988, the government launched operation Black Thunder 2. Two days before the execution of the operation, a young timid rickshaw puller entered the temple and convinced the militants that he was an ISI operative. In the next two days, he studied the militants, found the weaklings of the group and started manipulating them. The government believed that there were only 40 people inside the shrine, but when the spy revealed that there were at least 200 militants inside. In the next few hours, the water and electricity supply to the temple was cut off. The militants ran out of ration and started panicking. While few of them chose to commit suicide, few surrendered, and the remaining were shot dead. The psychological warfare set up by the spy, Ajit Doval, led to a less destructive yet successful operation. This bravery earned him the prestigious Kirti Chakra, and this became one of the milestones of his career along with many other acts of heroism, which made him the National Security Advisor of India.
While the work of Ajit Doval didn’t become public until 6 years ago, there were other spies who worked covertly during the 1980s too.
Ravindra Kaushik, a RAW agent who lived undercover in Pakistan was born and brought up in Rajasthan. He was a talented boy who loved acting and theater and participated in every drama his college hosted. His father being in the Indian Air Force was a huge inspiration for the young boy, inspiring him to put his life on the line for his country. While he was performing a drama in Lucknow, he was noticed by a RAW agent. Later, a job was offered to him to become an undercover Indian agent in Pakistan. He did everything he could during his training to prepare for the task at hand. For two years he went through extensive training in Delhi, learnt Urdu, was given Islamic religious education and underwent circumcision.
After two years of training, he went to Pakistan under the alias of Nabi Ahmed, did his graduation and then joined the Pakistani Army as a commissioner officer and eventually got promoted to the rank of a major. Since he was at such a high position in the army, all confidential information passed through him.
From 1979 to 1983, his work was immensely appreciated, he passed on valuable information to RAW which served to be a great help to the Indian Defence Forces, as it helped them get prepared for what was coming next.
Unfortunately, in September 1983, he was caught when Indian intelligence agencies sent another low-level operative, Inayat Misah to get in touch with Ravindra. Inayat got caught by the Pakistani Intelligence agencies and sadly had to reveal Ravindra’s true identity.
After getting caught, Kaushik was tortured for two years at an interrogation center in Sialkot.
He was given life sentence in 1985 but later was given life sentence by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. During the time when he was in jail, he sent letters to his family which stated his health and the trauma he was going through. He wrote:
“Kya Bharat jaise bade desh ke liye kurbani dene waalon ko yahi milta hai?”
“Is this what you get for sacrificing everything for your country?”
Little could be done, but the then Home Minister gave him the title ‘Black Tiger’ for his immense sacrifice.
But espionage isn’t just limited between countries. It’s also present between rival corporations. It often happens that companies find a mole amongst their employees who are ready to sell out information. Economic or industrial espionage is a threat to any business whose livelihood depends on information. In 1993, Opel and General Motors accused Volkswagen of industrial espionage, when Opel’s chief of production and its seven other employees started working for Volkswagen. The case ended, when Volkswagen decided to settle and pay $100 million to General Motors and buy $1billion worth parts for the next seven years.
With the ever so constantly developing technology, it also became easier for the government and other agencies to keep an eye on the society. Cambridge Analytica, which played a role in Donald Trump winning the elections, showed how only three pictures from your Instagram are enough to judge you. Although this invasion of privacy is very much against our fundamental rights, it was in this pandemic that we realized the constant surveillance on the citizens has helped countries such as South Korea to flatten its curve.
“You will never get to know about good spies. We don’t want to flaunt our success in other countries. So what you’ll know about our spies are less successful ones” -Ex RAW chief Vikram Sood.
The job of spies isn’t as glamorous as shown in the Bond movies, nor do all of them get to perform stunts like Ethan Hunt does. There’s a wide gap which separates the fiction and reality of the espionage world. Unfortunately, normal people like us don’t always get the chance to know about these unsung heroes. Until till then, satiate your needs with the best action espionage flicks, for even if your best friend is a spy, they’ll probably would have to kill you if they tell you.
-Saima and Smeet