Surender Jeet Singh v. John Ashcroft, Attorney General
Or how the CIA neglected and ruined an R&AW spymaster who defected to the US in 2004.
Towards the end of 2004, a curious appeal was made in the US Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. Surender Jeet Singh had applied for asylum. His request had been rejected by an Immigration Judge, and the rejection had been affirmed by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). No documents relating to this case before the appeal in the Ninth Circuit are available in the public domain. And had BIA decisions not been subject to judicial review, we would not have heard of Surender Jeet Singh at all. But the judgement handed down by the Ninth Circuit allows for inferring what is likely to have transpired.
Surender Jeet Singh petitioned the Ninth Circuit seeking review of the BIA's decision denying him asylum. Thus far it was no different from hundreds of such review petitions filed by people seeking asylum. Singh claimed to have worked for R&AW and provided a story that strains credulity.
As an agent of the RAW, he made reports on individuals believed to be Sikhs working to establish the separate Sikh state of Khalistan. He investigated about three persons a year over a period of thirteen years. He submitted postal receipts that he said showed his mailings to the RAW.
It remains unclear, unfortunately, what postal receipts were shared.
He quit when ordered to aid in the assassination of a very religious person he had investigated. After hiding with friends for a year, he used his own passport to come to the United States. He testified that he would be killed if returned to India.
No such organisation exists
The immigration judge did not find him credible and denied his application for asylum. The BIA affirmed the decision of the judge, but the basis on which it affirmed that decision -- later questioned by the Ninth Circuit -- suggests that the state did not want him there.
the respondent has presented no corroborative evidence whatsoever of the existence of this Indian government agency that is similar to the CIA and operates internationally. Despite the secrecy surrounding the operations of the CIA and other security agencies worldwide, it is not difficult to find evidence of their existence. Yet the respondent would have the Immigration Judge or the Board grant asylum based simply on his tale of being an agent for an organization that spies on and assassinates religious minorities, perhaps worldwide.
The Attorney General, in opposing Singh's review petition, appears to have made the argument that, as the Immigration Judge and the BIA noted, R&AW does not exist. I have been told by credible individuals that at the BIA hearing, the Appellate Immigration Judge cited a statement of facts filed by an official of the Indian Government as well as a report from the US Embassy in New Delhi affirming the fact that R&AW does not exist.
Who was Surender Jeet Singh?
Rajpal Prasad Sharma and his wife Deepa had arrived in Nepalgunj, Nepal, roughly 360km west of Kathmandu sometime around 1 May, having been driven there by a family friend from New Delhi. There they stayed at a hotel in a room that had been booked by David Vacala. David was an employee of the US Embassy in Kathmandu. He also provided them with American passports.
The couple flew from Kathmandu to Dulles International Airport on 7 May 2004. They were met at Dulles by an officer of the CIA who ensured that they did not have to go through customs and immigration, and no record existed of their having entered the US. The officer also relieved them of their passports.
Long story short, Rajpal Prasad Sharma was also known as Rabinder Singh, an officer of R&AW who was also known as Surender Jeet Singh. A short while after he arrived in the US, the CIA reneged on what it had promised him. He did not receive a senior position in a think tank, and as the appeal in the Ninth Circuit shows, they actively worked to oppose his request for asylum.
The Ninth Circuit relied on news reports from credible organisations to determine that R&AW exists, and granted his request, sending his case back to the BIA for review. Singh appears to have eventually been granted asylum or at least was permitted to stay on, but he did not receive any support from the CIA or the US government. His attempts at gaining a job at a think tank run by a former CIA deputy director were blocked, and he spent the rest of his life in penury.
Why would the CIA drop him like a hot potato weeks after exfiltrating him from India?
If Singh were spying for the CIA while employed by R&AW and was under suspicion by R&AW's counterintelligence people -- as we covered previously -- the CIA would have to major objectives in exfiltrating him. For one thing they would not want him to be interrogated because that would reveal the CIA's methods to R&AW and compromise CIA personnel he had interacted with. The other objective would be to extract whatever valuable information he still possessed.
I reached out to someone who has worked in intelligence. This person mentioned that defections are not as common now as they were during the cold war, and the CIA's willingness to support Singh or any other defector would also depend on the value that defector brings to the CIA.
In case of Singh, he was already their spy. They knew everything -- or almost everything -- of value that he had could provide. Besides, he had been under investigation by R&AW's counterintelligence for at least six months, and they had found photocopies in his briefcase that did not belong there. This suggests that his ability to gather valuable documents was curtailed. And he couldn't deliver anything valuable to the CIA now that he was no longer with R&AW
In short, Singh was no Gordievsky or Mitrokhin.
But the extent to which the CIA went, first to prevent him from gaining asylum and then to stop him from gaining meaningful employment, suggests that he promised them far more than he could deliver.
Rabinder Singh aka Surender Jeet Singh aka Rajpal Prasad Sharma spent more than a decade in depression, betrayed by the people he betrayed his country for, and died in a road accident in Maryland in 2016.
If you have enjoyed reading this story, please share it with your friends, and consider subscribing to Espionage& for free using the button below to receive new stories in your inbox.