Pegasus, media, show-cause – why suspended Andhra IPS officer and Jagan government are fighting

Hyderabad: An Andhra Pradesh IPS officer who was suspended in 2020 for ‘endangering national security’ is embroiled in a new controversy over the alleged purchase and use of Pegasus software during his tenure intelligence chief under the former regime of Chandrababu Naidu. The case has been a hot topic in the state for the past month.

Director General Ranking Officer AB Venkateswara Rao was slapped with a show cause notice by the current YS Jagan Mohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh for telling the media that the previous dispensation did not buy or use the software Pegasus spy.

The notice accused Rao of breaking All-India Services (AIS) rules by speaking on the matter without “government sanction”.

To this, the police officer replied that AIS rules required him to be “accountable and transparent” about the alleged purchase of Pegasus as it concerned his length of service.

“[W]then my tenure as head of intelligence was questioned and I was, by name, accused of buying and using [Pegasus] to illegally invade the privacy of citizens…i had no choice but to invoke my fundamental right under section 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 March 22, the Andhra Pradesh government sent him a show cause notice, which stated: “[T]The Service member spoke to the press without prior government permission, thereby contravening the provisions of Rules 6 and 17 of the AIS Rules of Conduct 1968.”

The notice implied that the caveats in rules 6 and 17 did not apply since “the act of the service member is neither in the good faith exercise of duty nor in the justification of his privateness or of any act performed by him in a private capacity”.

The notice gave the former intelligence chief one week to submit an explanation, adding that failure to do so would merit action under rules of conduct.

Rules 6 and 17, which Rao has been accused of violating, set limits on the circumstances in which a serving officer can participate in public media.

Section 6 clarifies that “prior government sanction shall not be required” only if the service member, “in the good faith performance of his duties or otherwise, publishes a book or contributes or participates in any public media.” .

Article 17 stipulates that without the prior authorization of the government, the military cannot have recourse to any court or to the press to enforce an official act which has been the subject of unfavorable criticism or attacks of a defamatory nature. “.

Rao relied heavily on the rulebook to provide his response, dated March 29, and also said he adhered to rules 6 and 17.

Reject the rulebook

In his explanation, Rao argued that AIS rules require him to maintain transparency and accountability.

“The Rules of Conduct… mandate me as an agent of AIS (All India Services), to comply with Rule 3(1A)(iv) which says: “Each member of the service shall maintain responsibility and transparency “and as such I was to be accountable and transparent regarding the matter and controversy regarding the purchase and/or use or otherwise of the Pegasus Software and I discharged my responsibilities as such says Rao’s letter.

He also quoted rules 6 and 17 extensively and said he had not broken them as alleged in the show cause notice.

According to Rao, Rule 6 “entitles” AIS members to “defend their good faith exercise of their duties” while Rule 17 allows them to protect themselves from “invasions of their privacy and privacy”. .

“I am happy to report that I used both rules to deal with the immediate challenges that arose,” he wrote.

Rao claimed his goal in speaking to the media was to “clean things up” regarding the alleged purchase and use of Pegasus software while he headed the intelligence department.

This, he argued, meant he had not breached Rule 6, which states that no government sanction is required if an officer participates in the media “in the good faith performance of his duties.” “.

“The issues raised in the public domain by several personalities as well as print and electronic media related to the alleged purchase of the Pegasus software, specifically, that it was purchased by the PA government through me as ADG/DG, PA Intelligence Department.. To that extent the issue is one in which my good faith exercise of my duties was called into question and to that extent it was of an official issue and I was the relevant manager for the issue in question,” Rao said in his explanation.

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

Rao pointed out that he had already sent a letter to the state government on March 21, asking for permission to file defamation suits against certain people and organizations and that he was “willing 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 conference the same day.

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

The “explanation” part of section 17 specifies that nothing in this section “shall be deemed to prohibit a member of the service from asserting his private character or any act done by him in a private capacity”, so 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 inferred from the allegations and attached media reports, the Pegasus issue was related to me and my tenure as head of the Intelligence Department,” Rao wrote.

He added that the “slanderous” allegations made against him were “derogatory” to his character and those of his family members – an apparent reference to his son, who was previously believed to have been involved in dealings with RT Inflatables Private Limited.

Speaking to ThePrint on Tuesday, Rao said he hadn’t heard anything from the government yet.

(Editing by Asavari Singh)

Read also: Pegasus Scandal Shows How Lawless India’s ‘Legal Interception’ Has Become

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