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Pegasus, media, show-cause — why suspended Andhra IPS officer & Jagan govt are sparring

Suspended cop A.B. Venkateswara Rao, intelligence chief in former TDP regime, has been accused of buying and using Pegasus spyware in his tenure. He has denied the allegations.

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Hyderabad: An Andhra Pradesh IPS officer who was suspended in 2020 on grounds of “endangering national security” is embroiled in a fresh controversy around the alleged purchase and use of Pegasus software during his tenure as intelligence chief in the previous Chandrababu Naidu regime. The matter has been a hot-button issue in the state since last month.

Director General-rank officer A.B. Venkateswara Rao was slapped with a show-cause notice by the current Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh for telling the media that the previous dispensation did not buy or use Pegasus spyware.

The notice accused Rao of contravening All-India Services (AIS) Rules by speaking about the issue without “sanction by the government”.

To this, the police officer has responded that AIS Rules mandated him to be “accountable and transparent” about the alleged Pegasus purchase since it pertained to his term of service.

“[W]hen my tenure as head of intelligence department was being called into question and I was, by name, being alleged to have purchased and used [Pegasus] to illegally invade privacy of citizens… I had no choice but to invoke my fundamental right under Article 21 [life and personal liberty] and my rights as an AIS officer under Rules 6 and 17 [dealing with media interactions and vindication of an officer’s act, resp, to protect myself and my family from onslaught,” he wrote.

Rao, once considered the “Man Friday” of Chandrababu Naidu, has not been given any posting since the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy-led Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) took over the reins in May 2019.

While the notice and the response to it were submitted late last month, they came to light only on 5 April. ThePrint has accessed copies of both documents.


Also Read: Pegasus makers came to Bengal police to sell spyware, claims Mamata, ‘I said we don’t want it’


How the controversy started

In February 2020, A.B. Venkateswara Rao was suspended from service for allegedly colluding with an Israel-based defence manufacturing company called R.T. Inflatables Private Limited, and leaking critical police and intelligence information to it. The IPS officer was also alleged to have violated procedures in awarding contracts to the company.

The issue of the controversial Pegasus spyware came into the equation on 17 March this year when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claimed that its Israeli manufacturer, NSO Group, offered to sell it to her for Rs 25 crore around five years ago. She said she hadn’t bought it, but claimed the Andhra government had, during Chandrababu Naidu’s tenure.

This allegation was immediately refuted by Naidu’s TDP, which also drew attention to an August 2021 RTI reply by the Andhra Pradesh DGP that the software was never procured by the former state government.

The ruling YSRCP, however, insisted that Naidu and his intelligence chief A.B. Venkateswara Rao might have “privately” purchased the spyware and called for a “thorough probe”.

As a war of words raged between the parties, the Andhra assembly passed a resolution on 21 March to set up a panel to ascertain whether the TDP government bought and used Pegasus.

On the same day, Rao called a press conference, ostensibly to clear his name, which then resulted in the AP government’s show-cause notice.

Pegasus, described as military-grade spyware, became the subject of global notoriety in July 2021 when collaborating media groups from around the world alleged that the software had been used by governments, including India’s, to spy on political opponents, business leaders, journalists, activists and other public figures.


Also Read: Pegasus ‘centrepiece’ of 2017 defence deal between India & Israel, says NYT investigation


The show-cause notice

In his press conference, Rao proclaimed that “no government department” had purchased or used Pegasus software, at least “till April 2019”, and that he had been a victim of “character assassination”.

He also indicated that he was considering filing a defamation suit against certain media channels and YSRCP leaders. “I am bound by All India Service Rules, but this does not mean that someone can point fingers at me,” he said.

 

A day later, on 22 March, the Andhra Pradesh government sent him a show-cause notice, which stated: “[T]he member of Service addressed the press without previous sanction of the government, thereby contravened the provisions of Rule 6 and Rule 17 of the AIS (Conduct) Rules 1968.”

The notice implied that caveats to Rules 6 and 17 did not apply since the “act of the member of the service is neither in the bona fide discharge of the duty nor vindicating his private character or any act done by him in his private capacity”.

The notice gave one week’s time to the former intelligence chief to submit an explanation, adding that failing to do so would merit action in accordance with conduct rules.

Rules 6 and 17, which Rao was accused of violating, set limitations on the circumstances in which an officer in service can participate in public media.

Rule 6 specifies that “previous sanction of the government shall not be required” only if the member of service, “in the bona fide discharge of his duties or otherwise, publishes a book or contributes to or participates in a public media”.

Rule 17 states that without previous sanction of the government, service members cannot have “recourse to any court or to the press for the vindication of official act which has been the subject matter of adverse criticism or attack of a defamatory character”.

Rao drew extensively from the rule book to furnish his response, dated 29 March, and also said he had adhered to Rules 6 and 17.

Throwing back the rule book

In his explanation, Rao maintained that the AIS Rules required him to maintain transparency and accountability.

“The conduct Rules… mandate me as an AIS (All India Services) officer, to comply with Rule 3(1A) (iv) which says, ‘Every member of the Service shall maintain accountability and transparency’ and as such, I had to be accountable and transparent with regard to the question and the controversy pertaining to purchase and/or use or otherwise of Pegasus software and I discharged my responsibilities as such,” Rao’s letter said.

He also quoted extensively from Rules 6 and 17 and said that he had not contravened them as alleged in the show-cause notice.

According to Rao, Rule 6 “empowers” AIS members to “defend their bona fide discharge of duties” while Rule 17 allows them to protect themselves from “attacks on their private lives and private character”.

“I am glad to inform that I did use both the rules to face the immediate challenges thrown up,” he wrote.

Rao claimed his purpose of addressing the media was to “clear the air” regarding the alleged purchase and use of Pegasus software while he was heading the intelligence department.

This, he argued, meant that he did not violate Rule 6, which states no government sanction is required if an officer participates in media “in the bona fide discharge of his duties”.

“The issues raised in public domain by several prominent persons as well as print and electronic media were regarding the alleged purchase of Pegasus software, more particularly, that it was purchased by the Government of AP through me as ADG/DG, intelligence department of AP. To that extent, the issue is one in which my bona fide discharge of duties was questioned and to that extent, it was an official issue and I was the official concerned with the issue at hand,” Rao said in his explanation.

Regarding Rule 17, Rao pointed out that it has a provision for officers who have sought sanction from the government for approaching the court or the press. This part of the rule says that if sanction is not conveyed by the government within 12 weeks of receipt of a request, a service member “shall be free to assume that the sanction sought for has been granted to him”.

Rao emphasised that he had already addressed a letter to the state government, on 21 March, seeking permission to file defamation cases against certain individuals and organisations and was “prepared to wait 12 weeks in this regard”. He added that he had informed the government that he would address the media on the issue of “immediate public importance”. He held the press meet on the same day.

Further, Rao said he was defending his “private character”, which was under attack and not criticising any action or policy of the government, which is prohibited under the rules.

The “explanation” part of Rule 17 specifies that nothing in it “shall be deemed to prohibit a member of the service from vindicating his private character or any act done by him in his private capacity”, as long as a report is also submitted to the government regarding such action.

“Pegasus is either an official issue or a private issue. It can’t be both at the same time. However, as can be gleaned from the allegations and media reports enclosed, the issue of Pegasus was connected to me and my tenure as head of intelligence department,” Rao wrote.

He added that the “scurrilous” allegations against him were “derogatory” to his character and that of his family members — an apparent reference to his son, who was earlier alleged to have been involved in dealings with R.T. Inflatables Private Limited.

Speaking to ThePrint Tuesday, Rao said he had not heard anything from the government yet.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)


Also Read: Pegasus scandal shows how lawless India’s ‘lawful interception’ has become


 

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