Before Khobragade: notes from the 1981 US-India PNG’ing

Apropos of Khobragade-gate – culminating in last week’s reciprocal expulsion of diplomats from the United States and India – I was interested in the precedents for this case.

The last incident was in 1997, when two US intelligence officers were expelled after an unauthorised meeting with a senior official from India’s Intelligence Bureau, with the US kicking out two Indian officials in response.

The case before that appears to date to 1981, when George Griffin was prevented from taking up a post in Delhi:

Griffin had served at the American consulate in Calcutta 10 years earlier, in 1971, during the war with Pakistan when the US had threatened to attack India. “We were convinced that he played an intelligence role while at the consulate, and there was simply no way we could welcome someone who had tried to threaten the security of India while she was at war,” recalled a diplomat who had just returned from an overseas posting to a role at the external affairs ministry headquarters here. “There was anger that the US had even tried to suggest posting Griffin here — they were needling us.” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made a public statement in response to questions, confirming that India had refused to accept Griffin’s posting because of his “intelligence role” during the 1971 war … Predictably, the US retaliated, refusing to accept the appointment of Prabhakar Menon, posted by India that year as a political officer at the Washington embassy.

In 2002, the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training conducted a fascinating extended interview (PDF) with Griffin as part of its oral history programme, including segments on his time in Calcutta and his later falling out of favour with the Indian government. Here are some particularly interesting excerpts:

On meeting with Indian Army officers

One evening [during Griffin’s Calcutta posting], we were invited to the home of the Indian Political Officer – the equivalent of an ambassador – for dinner. One of the guests was an Indian mountain climber. He was an Army colonel, who commanded the Indian Army Mountain Warfare School in Kashmir. He bragged that he had just climbed Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, east of Everest, on the China border. He showed us some slides of the climb, which was supposed to be secret. The mountain is considered sacred by the Bhutanese, and the official line remains that no one has ever climbed it. Moreover, the Chinese didn’t want Indians climbing it because it overlooked Tibet. The mountain has a cliff face on the north side, which is considered unclimbable. The Chinese wanted to climb it themselves, but that is possible only through Sikkim or Bhutan, and the Indians wouldn’t let them. The colonel said that, if the Chinese had learned about his expedition, they would have considered it a spy mission. Two Chinese military bases – an airbase and an army base – can be seen from the peak. We decided not to publicize it.

On  Americans in India:

Indians and Americans have almost the same image abroad – that is, arrogant and not very nice, until you get to know them. Anybody who comes to America and spends time, especially in the middle of the country, will say, “Oh, Americans are so friendly. Everybody says hello to you. Everywhere you go, people are friendly and say hi.” It’s rather similar in India … Indians in general, and especially Indians abroad, are like Americans. They appear arrogant, they know everything, they are not always very nice people, so you don’t think you want to know them. But if you do get to know them – the same with Americans – you can find good friends.

On internal US disputes over the 1971 War, which have been written about in recent books (notably Gary Bass’ Blood Telegram):

We were at the end of the food chain. From our perspective, the Department, Embassy New Delhi, and Embassy Islamabad were squabbling about what our stance should be. In particular, Ambassadors Farland (in Islamabad) and ex-Senator Kenneth Keating (in New Delhi) seemed to us to be snarling at each other. We kept adding free advice to our reports that we should all cooperate, as we’re on the same team. But differing views has been a problem between those two embassies ever since Pakistan was created. Embassy New Delhi finally arranged a meeting, asking Islamabad to send its political counselor. He didn’t come, but his deputy did – my friend Bill Simmons. I was invited too, so I went to Delhi and sat in a series of meetings mostly chaired by Lee Stull, the Political Counselor. Dick Viets was the Ambassador’s staff aide at the time, and Galen Stone was the DCM. They and lots of others, including the CIA station chief, got involved. But we ran into a buzz saw. Bill Simmons said Ambassador Farland was upset because we didn’t grasp that East Pakistan was internal Pakistani business. He suggested that we shut up and do our jobs tracking India, which seemed primed to attack our CENTO ally Pakistan … every time Embassy Islamabad said it was an internal Pakistani affair we sent in a report showing how those “internal” problems had spilled over into India … In the midst of the war, I got a call from one of the generals at Eastern Command asking why we were sending an aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal. I asked Embassy New Delhi what was going on. Ambassador Keating in turn called the State Department and, in much more colorful language, asked if it were true. It turned that the USS Enterprise had been ordered into the Bay of Bengal without informing the Ambassador. He was livid.

On India’s war hero General  JFR Jacob giving away India’s order of battle:

Frustrated, I went back to Calcutta and kept doing my job. One evening my wife and I were invited to supper a trois by the deputy commandant of Eastern Command, a fascinating gentleman named Major General J. F. R. Jacob. After the war, he was promoted, and became the highest ranking Jew ever in the Indian Army – something he is rightly proud of. He’s from Bombay and is now a senior member of the ruling BJP. Jackie and I got to be pretty thick after a couple of false starts. At supper that night he showed us some of his prized Chinese artifacts, and we talked a lot about art. Finally, he said, “Don’t you have to go to the bathroom? Go through the bedroom.” It took me a few moments to understand, but once in his bedroom I found a huge map of the region on his wall .on which all of the Indian military formations were carefully plotted – all of them. I didn’t have a camera, but I had a pretty good memory. I studied the map for as long as I dared, then raced to the Consulate and filed the news that there were troops where we didn’t know there were troops, and many more than we had thought.

Being followed in India and Pakistan:

Like many of my colleagues, I always assumed that my phone was tapped in every post. I was sure of it in India; it was a given. And I presumed it in Pakistan. Since I had transferred directly from India to Pakistan, I probably was under more suspicion than some of our other people. It was proved later on when Howie Schaffer and Dennis Kux were tapped. Bhutto played a tape recording of one of their conversations on the air, claiming that American diplomats were making fun of Pakistan and were not real friends. That was long after I left, but it created quite a stir. So, yes, one presumed. Watched? Of course. They tracked me around. They always knew where I was. The Northwest Frontier was a bit like the northeast in India; you had to have a special permit to go there. There was a DEA agent in Islamabad who got in trouble because of that. He came to Pakistan directly from being a deputy sheriff in West Texas, and hadn’t been overseas before. I’ll never forget his name – Harold Leap. He sported a 10-gallon hat and cowboy boots, and liked to strap on a six- shooter and have a good time. Once he chased some drug runners into the Northwest Frontier. The Pakistan police would never do that, but Leap did. He was lucky to be alive. He got shot at and then rescued, I think, by Pakistan Army troops. The Ambassador sent him away before he could be PNGed by the Pakistan Government. Yes, they knew where you were.

On being accused of trying to kill Mrs Gandhi:

One of the triggers for her action had my name on it. She was about to take a trip abroad when mechanics found something wrong with her official aircraft. At an Air India facility in Bombay, where the plane was maintained, inspectors found some control wires sawed halfway through. As the communists’ favorite “killer CIA spy,” my name got attached to this. Allegedly, I had somehow sneaked in and done this in the dead of night. They had to blame somebody, and I was convenient, if nowhere near India. So, I was one scapegoat to prove that somebody was out to get her. In the end, Mrs. Gandhi’s imposition of the state of emergency cost her the prime ministership, and she went to jail. Then in 1980 she came back.

On being PNGd in 1981:

I told the Department I wanted Delhi. The Indian Ambassador got wind of it, and became more and more friendly. At a luncheon he had for me, he noted that I would need a proper visa, and asked for my passport. His staff gave me a multiple-entry diplomatic visa, to save me from a bureaucratic run-around in New Delhi. When he gave it to me, he wished me well in New Delhi, saying he would look me up when he came home, so we could continue to be good friends. I was very happy about the future … I got a radio-telephone call from good old Howard Schaffer, saying there was a problem. When I asked what it was, he said it looked as if I might not be going to New Delhi after all. I had just been declared persona non grata by the Indian Government. [They] were told that, actually, the Government of India didn’t want to see me, ever again. After all, Mrs. Gandhi saw me as a major enemy of India. So I was PNGed, thanks to a messenger. I was front-page news for a few days. Secretary Haig was quoted as saying, “Griffin is not a CIA spy,” which cheesed off the Agency because we’re not supposed to confirm or deny such things. I’ve been told it was the only time a Secretary of State has ever said that … [In 1984] Then the Soviets really went to town, saying I was behind [Indira Gandhi’s assassination] as a promoter of Free Kalistan, a militant Sikh movement … Pravda 111 was first to print that story. Then the Indian press picked it up and repeated it along with my picture – the whole shebang … . Everybody who followed Soviet disinformation activity (it’s a Russian word) said my case was unprecedented. They had never seen anything else like it. If you go on the Internet, you will find all the books in which I’m called a killer CIA spy.

Avoiding the Indian Ambassador in Lagos:

Our chancery, thanks to some clever bureaucrats, was next to the Bulgarian Embassy. One of the most dedicated recorders of our fire was a cameraman at that chancery. Our communications vault was in a corner closest to the Bulgarians. Both embassies had lots of antennas. After the fire, the FCS office was moved to that side of the building, as we were one of the least sensitive sections. Two doors past the Bulgarians was the Indian chancery and residence. The Indian Ambassador, because of my history, refused to speak to me. He would dodge away across the room at large receptions, and turn on his heel if I got too close. But his wife was the sister of India’s national tennis champion, who was a friend of ours in Calcutta.

On being shunned by the Indian Ambassador in Nigeria:

A couple of weeks after we arrived in Lagos, I asked someone where to get a haircut. The most common answer was “Try the Indian Ambassador’s wife.” She ran a unisex hairdressing shop in her residence. Since I had heard of her and knew her brother, I took the bit between my teeth and called for an appointment. She signed me up, and as she was cutting my hair, she said, “I think I have heard of you.” I replied that I was a friend of her brother. She seemed delighted that I knew Calcutta, and wondered if we had been in touch lately. I said, “No,” and told her why, offering some of my history with her government. She said, “Oh, that’s so silly. Why did they do that?” I said, “I don’t know. Ask your husband.” After my third haircut I bumped into him in the hallway, and told him I thought avoidance was unnecessary. We should at least say hello politely. I said, “What’s been done has been done. I’m not going to assassinate you; nor you me.” He seemed to agree, and suggested that my wife and I come for dinner. An invitation never did come. Years later, I met the man we PNGed in retaliation for my being bounced from New Delhi. He, of course, was immediately made ambassador to Malawi, or some such place. He came to a conference of Indian chiefs of mission in Nairobi, and made a point of being introduced to me. He said he was delighted that I came despite our mutual history, because he wanted to meet me. He said, “Thank you for helping my career.”

The interview’s conclusion:

Q: Well, I want to thank you very much, George. This is a fascinating story, and I hope you’ve cleared your name with the Indians by this point.

GRIFFIN: Oh, they love me now.

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One response to “Before Khobragade: notes from the 1981 US-India PNG’ing

  1. That first anecdote…clearly confused about Kanchenjunga. He meant Chomolhari, I guess, ‘the bride of Kanchenjunga’…

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