India is a real melting pot for the global arms market – among its top suppliers are firms from Russia, Israel, France, several other European nations and now increasingly the United States of America. India has been the top importer of arms and ammunition in recent history.
When such big money is involved, some very clever people find ways of beating the system to make big bucks. And, except for the US that is a fairly new entrant into the game, major Indian defence scandals and corruption investigations have hit countries and companies in all corners of the world.
At this very moment – some of the biggest arms companies in the world are banned from doing business in India due to corruption investigations. This includes German defence giant Rheinmetall that was caught twice. First for bribing a top Indian official who headed a set of government owned defence factories. Then again, two years later when it was investigated for trying to bribe more people to get out of trouble due to the first incident.
Another company is Finmeccanica (now called Leonardo) that was banned after I reported for two straight years starting 2012 on how they bribed their way through to win a 556 million dollar contract for VVIP helicopters.
Investigating the arms trade requires tenacity and a merciless perusal for the truth. In 2012, when I wrote the first story in India, the government that had bought the choppers was in power. They had no will to investigate themselves for corruption and I was the only one writing away.
The stories slowly opened up a Pandora’s box – from hints that a former air chief was involved in fixing the deal to the arms dealers talking about the senior most political leaders of India in most familiar terms.
It still took two years – and several dozen stories – to get Indian agencies to investigate the scandal. The contract was formally cancelled in 2014 and it is now one of the biggest political scandals in India on the defence front, with a common perception that a large part of the kickbacks – estimated to be over 56 million dollars – found its way to senior leaders.
The case is still under investigation and hits regular headlines in India. Focusing this on investigating corruption in the international arms trade I have a few tips to share on cracking the big stories.
The Very first Step to investigating the arms market is SMELLING THE DUBIOUS DEAL. For journalists who are tracking their respective governments, the tell tale signs are easy to guess. Big nations process several dozen big defence deals through the year. Any defence deal that is pushed through faster than the others, bypassing the normal route for processing is suspect.
In the biggest defence scandal in India for decades, the 556 million dollar contract for VVIP helicopters got red flagged in my eyes the day our government gave it higher priority than a much more critical contract for air to air refuelers for the air force.
Any deal that gets pushed through too fast is on drugs – that is the way I approach things. Now this could be because of genuine reasons of operational need or there could be an amount of grease involved in the process.
Secondly, sweating the small stuff - a mistake that a lot of us make is tracking only the big things. Big deals, with multi-billion dollar budgets make big headlines and impact. But again from experience, I can share that the actual illegal transaction of money takes place through the small stuff that passes right under our noses.
One of the most useful tools invented for journalists is Google alerts. It is particularly useful in tracking global developments around known or little known arms dealers. What is needed is a set of names – names that matter in the shadowy and dark world of middlemen and arms agents. These names can best be obtained through sources – investigative agencies, government officials, known dealers and through sources within this small world as well
In India we have a very interesting, secret list of names called the UCM – the undesirable contact men. This is a list draw to warn defence officials on who not to speak with. For a journalist, this is the most useful list of contacts. These are the most desirable people for journalists tracking the arms trade to meet up with.
Using the Competition - This is a common to almost all work done by journalists. We explore the cracks in the system – we find and seek people who wish to speak out, be it for differences with the system or a genuine discomfort with things and happenings.
Some of the biggest stories on Indian arms agents and traders have come from people who were involved in the business themselves. A shadow watch on the very tiny world of these agents for possible cracks is essential. This is difficult as getting into this close set of people is not easy. One way to work this is staying ahead on the information game.
One case that I extensively reported on concerns an arms dealer. He is currently on bail but is facing serious charges of corruption and leaking secret government files and military plans to partners abroad.
For years he was one of the smartest in the field, very successful at his job. It was only when he fell off with his escrow agent in the US that things unravelled. The result of this was the leak of an amazing set of documents – emails, files, payment records, phone records, photographs and videos that gave us a very rare peak into the world of how arms dealer work.
Handling Documents – A very difficult part of working on stories related to arms is that the things we deal with are sometimes very secret and confidential. The problem faced is how to balance the need of staying within the law but also telling the story that needs to be told.
One way is to rope in veterans – the retired community of officers and men who are as concerned as us journalists on corruption eating away the hard work they did. In one case there was a story involving a massive breach of secret documents related to the air force. The leak was so serious that it made it impossible to even report on the broad nature of details that would have woken our system into action.
The only option was to meet a few of our former, recently retired air chiefs. Individually, showed them documents leaked. The story the next day was based on their voices – on what they thought about the leak of documents. Without making public the contents, the message went out that even former Air Chiefs were shaken by the leak.
Tracking International Investigations -
Very Often, the first leads to a brewing defence scandal comes from international investigations. Tracking these investigations can lead to some surprising results. Some that I find most interesting to track are
The US FCPA –
One of the newest scams to hit India involved the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer. Yes, even Brazil sells us defence equipment. The only way the corruption scandal broke out was through the FCPA investigations into Embraer’s world wide practice. Tracking the working of the Department of Justice is very useful as it mandates the US to investigate even foreign companies that operate from its soil.
The other one is the UK Serious Frauds Office
Another scandal that made headlines in India this year came from the UK serious frauds office that had been investigating the world wide operations of defence company Rolls Royce
Even in the toned down judgement – which was a deferred prosecution agreement – there were enough details to track and figure out which Indian individuals and entities were involved in possible corrupt practices.
The detailed judgement named several Indian and global military programs on behalf of which unexplained payments were made by Rolls Royce. Now this is a rich source of information and leads that can get local reporters the big story they have been wanting.
Monitoring Arms Registers - One way to keep track of where the big arms are moving is through the UN register of conventional arms transfers.
Though not updated regularly, they are a good source for tracking some arms movements that may have otherwise fallen under the radars. The SIPRI trade register is more updated and detailed but is mostly based on open source information.
Making Impact - It is very common for governments that are facing corruption charges to try and hide things under the carpet. The easiest thing to do is to ignore the problem unless it gets too big. There have been instances where stories regarding the arms trade and corruption have not had the desired effect of leading to formal investigations.
The swarm approach is useful here. If one story does not work, don’t stop there. A swarm of stories on the same subject bringing in incrementally more information helps create impact. To go back to the helicopter scandal that we had in India, It took over two dozen stories spread over two years for the government to order formal investigations .
Again, bringing in the veteran community is a great way to generate impact of these stories. Credible voices of ex servicemen and women who have served the country bring critical depth into the investigations that we do. Getting them to speak out these issues , on particular investigations adds heft and weight.
Security - most are aware on the basics of security – from not speaking on the phone, using encrypted messengers, always keeping only a hardcopy of sensitive documents and more.
The one thing I follow while working on sensitive stories is the buddy system. Some one in office – my colleague or a senior is always updated and aware on what I have been working on. So, regular updates of information collected and leads being followed are shared with the buddy to keep him or her in the loop.
From my experience on the arms trade, I can share that there is only a three word formula for successful and meaningful investigative journalism - COLLABORATION, COLLABORATION AND COLLABORATION. No matter how smart we are or how many sources we have, the complex, multi national way in which the international arms trade works requires a sharing of information and knowledge amongst us all.
There has to be a collaboration of information. We need a collaboration of resources – from journalists capable to tracking hard to get information to a database of information that is easily available, secure and flexible.
Collection of watchdog reporting from India