February 23 2020
Snoop probe: Pranab bypassed home min
21 June 2011

Reports that finance minister Pranab Mukherjee's office was bugged last year have sparked questions whether it was the result of corporate wars or battles within the cabinet. The answers to who planted the bugs may never be found but the murky affair has exposed the fault lines within the government.

The P. Chidambaram-led home ministry, which is directly responsible for internal security, was kept completely out of the loop of the probe into how an adhesivetype material was found at 16 places in the finance ministry, including at three spots inside Mukherjee's room, last year.

A security breach was alleged in the offices of Mukherjee and his aides - adviser Omita Paul and private secretary Manoj Pant - besides two conference rooms used by the minister.

Government sources on Tuesday conceded that after Mukherjee's letter to Manmohan Singh last September pointing out the discovery and asking for a secret highlevel probe, the PM's office did not involve the home ministry into the investigation. The PMO directly contacted the then director of the Intelligence Bureau ( IB), Rajiv Mathur, asking him to probe the matter instead of the home minister or the home secretary, to whom the IB usually reports. " The home ministry was completely out of the loop till then… Later, anyway, we knew that the IB was probing the matter," a top source said.

The fact that Mukherjee chose to write to the PMO and not to Chidambaram was underlined to point out the fault lines in the government.

That the Central Board of Direct Taxes ( CBDT) brought in private investigators to conduct an electronic sweep of the finance ministry's VVIP chambers also showed the lack of faith in the government's security and investigating agencies, sources pointed out.

This was something that the BJP was quick to pick on, as it alluded to a " civil war" between Mukherjee and Chidambaram. " Today, the UPA government is completely directionless, rudderless, without leadership and apprehensive. The situation has come to such a pass that the finance minister suspects his office is bugged. The country wants to know who is bugging his office," BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said.

Sources said since the episode, counter- surveillance has been stepped up in the top government departments. The IB now does a regular screening swoop of the offices of the finance minister, home minister and the PMO every three days to detect bugs - a far increased frequency to the earlier practice of doing so every fortnight. BUT THE IB sought to play down the incident on Tuesday, as did Mukherjee himself.

Sources said the IB found no evidence of any snooping or bugging in the finance ministry and, hence, for the home ministry, it essentially became a " done and dusted" matter several months ago.

The IB had taken all the adhesives found at 16 places in the finance ministry and subjected the same to forensic tests. " The tests showed it was only chewing gum and nothing else. There was no groove or cavity in places where the chewing gum was spotted… in one of the places, the adhesive had a paint coating on it suggesting that it had been there for several months. But we still can't say with absolute certainty if bugging devices had been planted earlier using this chewing gum," the government source said.

" The IB closed the matter last October as nothing concrete was found in the probe. To detect a security breach, you have to find a bug - the IB found no recording devices," the official added. MUKHERJEE, too, said on Tuesday that investigating agencies had found nothing during their probe of the suspected security breach at his North Block office. " The IB had investigated the matter and they found there is nothing," he said.

But experts said the presence of such material inside the ministry would have been virtually impossible without an insider's job.

Former IB joint director M. K. Dhar said some private parties with vested interests may have used remote- controlled radio bugs to snoop on the minister.

He suspected that the parties would have been interested in obtaining details of fiscal and policy matters pertaining to a growing sector of the economy.

"It would not have been possible without the collaboration of an insider," Dhar said.

A source also said the incident might have been a case of paranoia on part of certain finance ministry officials. The incident took place last September. This was around the same time when the Nira Radia tapes were leaked and there was concern over leakage of sensitive information.

But the episode, according to insiders and experts, has raised serious questions on the security of a key ministry such as finance which is run by such a veteran politician as Mukherjee.



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