Monday, December 27, 2010

Indian Leaks: Bofors, Thakkar Commission, Devi Lal etc.

I thought I shall write this after a day but could not resist it. The release of the Thakkar Commission report by Indian Express ranks right along there with wikileaks. Indian Express and the Rajiv Gandhi government were at each other's throat. Thakkar commission was established to probe the conspiracy angle in Indira Gandhi's assassination. The report was sealed as "secret" even from the then President Giani Zail Singh. One fine morning Indian Express readers woke up to see on the front page a column titled "The needle of suspicion points to R.K. Dhawan". Dhawan was Gandhi's secretary. Thakkar commission had said his conduct was suspicious. By now Dhawan was an MP. Needless to say the Parliament was rocked. The country was in a state of shock. A senior member of Indira Gandhi's administration and a close confidant had been pointed with a "needle of suspicion". Then questions swirled around M.L.Fotedar too. Both Fotedar and Dhawan were only steps behind Mrs Gandhi but were not hit by the spray of bullets that felled the Iron Lady. Of course the Express was hauled to the courts.

The creme-de-la-creme was the Bofors controversy. For months Rajiv Gandhi had claimed nothing had happened. Rajiv had come to Avadi for a national Congress party meeting reminiscent of the one held by Nehru. The day the meeting opened India's most venerated newspaper Hindu (referred as the prim lady by Nehru in his autobiography) splashed on its front pages documents indicating kickbacks. Hinduja's and Quattrochi became household names. Chitra Subramaniam reporting from Geneva was the key investigation journalist, Ram was her counterpart in India writing the articles. The collaboration ended messily. Later then editor of Hindu, Kasturi, put a stop to the expose. N.Ram huffed and puffed and took his exposes to rival Express. Goenka, publisher of Express, and Arun Shourie, editor of Express, were too glad to provide space to N.Ram. Arun Shourie had cut his teeth in investigative journalism during his earlier stint at Express by taking on Maharashtra strongman A.R.Antulay.

Congress then decided to meet expose with expose. V.P.Singh was riding high as the Jan Morcha leader. I am not sure of the chronology here a bit but I think the St.Kitt's scandal happened after the Allahabad by election when Singh trounced the Congress candidate. Papers friendly to congress published documents alleging offshore accounts  in St.Kitts island as belonging to V.P.Singh's son Ajeya Singh. This was targeted to hit Singh's Mr Clean image. Within days Arun Shourie and others proved that the documents were forged. P.V.Narasimha Rao then External Affairs minister got embroiled in that forgery case in later years.

Once V.P.Singh got elected it was a case of tamasha everyday trying to keep "Tau" Devi Lal happy. Om Prakash Chautala, Devi Lal's son, caused utter mayhem in the Meham by election to get elected as MLA (and become Haryana CM). Tau, convinced that the newspaper elites were against him picked up the phone to Arun Shourie. Devi Lal then launched into a tirade filled with obscene expletives. Arun Shourie then released the entire transcript the very next day on the front pages titled 'This is the Deputy Prime Minister speaking".

The Nellie massacre was brought to light only due to journalists. Indira Gandhi was advised by intelligence agencies not to hold elections in Assam where the students were agitating against influx of foreigners, mostly Muslims from Bangladesh. Indira, for political gains, as always, went ahead and Nellie, a village mostly of Muslims, saw a massacre that was brazen and shocking. The official commission's report is still classified a secret. Around 2000+ muslims died.

Of course these exposes started taking an ugly turn even back then. Ram Jethmalani who ran his famous "10 questions a day" to Rajiv published photos of Ajitabh Bachchan's private home in Switzerland (or Sweden?). The tuition fee details of Bachchhan children were divulged in the front pages as proof of ill-begotten money. Amitabh was innocent.

Now we have the sting operation era. Tehelka tapes exposed corruption in BJP alliance and in the most serious expose the judges of lower courts were exposed in a "cash for warrants" sting. The Supreme Court chief justice was miffed at Tehelka for the expose than with the corrupt judges themselves.

The Radia tapes has a sweet irony to it. In 1981 a temple functionary at the famous Tiruchendur temple was murdered and a diamond necklace was stolen. The then MGR government prompt announced a commission headed by C.J.R.Paul. The needle of suspicion pointed towards R.M.Veerappan a key confidante of MGR. Karunanidhi undertook a walk to Tiruchendur "Needhi Kettu Nediya Payanam". The Paul commission report was classified secret by MGR. MK got a copy through his contacts and promptly released it, of course in the interest of truth. Then as always happens in politics R.M.Veerappan became friends with MK and RMV's party man is cabinet minister who recently held a lavish function to celebrate MK (though no one knows what was celebrated).

Today Radia tapes are a huge embarrassment to MK and he is tilting at every imaginary windmill much like Don Quixote trying to find fault with every one in sight except his kith and kin.

In a colorful democracy like that of India there is no shortage of drama (and national shame) I just rambled a few.

Wikileaks, Pentagon Papers : A study in contrasts.

When wikileaks walloped America the one citation that popped up incessantly was "Pentagon Papers". As the Vietnam war ground on inexorably with American casualties in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians killed, Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense) commissioned a secret study to analyze the war comprehensively. The study was a secret. It completely laid bare how successive American administrations had lied to Americans and World at large.

Daniel Ellsberg a task force member wanted to bring the study out to the public and bring it he certainly did. The New York Times started publishing excerpts from the 43 volumes it had received but was soon muzzled by a court stay. Washington Post, under its newly minted publisher Katherine Graham, swung into action. Katherine was personally warned by Lyndon Johnson. The Post too came under attack from the courts.

Both the Times and Post approached the US Supreme Court in a landmark case. The verdict, in favor of the newspapers, under First Amendment, while not giving a carte blanche it protected them. Katherine Graham, in her Pulitzer winning autobiography, said the verdict was "not a ringing affirmation of first Amendment". The courts had agreed with the papers that the Government had "not met the heavy burden of proof required for prior restraint". However the Court refused to invalidate the Espionage act nor did they give a carte-blanche to publish secrets.

Daniel Ellsberg went on TV shows recently to commend wikileaks and talk about government penchant for secrecy. The Economist, as always, drew a sharp difference between wikileaks and Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg had surrendered in court and subjected himself to due process for his infraction (he was later acquitted in a messy case). Ellsberg had approached many before Times and Post took up the offer to print. The papers did so with great care and after satisfying themselves that they were indeed 'exposing' America's duplicitous conduct. Ellsberg also later approached a US Senator to make him submit the 43 volumes as material in US senate because the senate rules protect a US Senator from any legal proceedings for what he says on the floor of the US Senate (250 year old constitution, whew). Economist highlighted these with the conduct of Assange who functions outside any legal accountability.

As the wikileaks strip tease continues everyday so far nothing has emerged that made non-partisan commentators to shriek "Shame" at America. Just last week NYT ran an article that showed how the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) battles corruption at high places across the globe in its prosecution of drug trafficking. Hardly worth condemning, if anything we should be applauding. Of course habitual America baiters like N.Ram ran reams of news print condemning the "empire" while turning a proverbial Nelson's eye to his beloved China's far more shameful conduct of la affair Nobel Peace Prize.

To pretend that nothing of what he did caused harm is just arrogance. Assange haughtily proclaims that nobody has been harmed (physically that is). True. He also decries that this is usual scare mongering. True. Every government, when a secret is exposed, shrieks "national security impaired". However in this case, across the spectrum, most serious journalists agree that US diplomatic relations has indeed taken a beating. Next time when a Government co-operates with USA on anti-terrorism acts it will very well hesitate.

Richard Stengel, editor of Time, succinctly captures the contradictions, "(Assange) replied that he believed in the necessity of keeping his own sources secret and took great pains to do so. Now, there is some hypocrisy in defending secrecy in order to attack it, but there is more naivete and even danger in suggesting that the world is a safer place without any secrets at all". Stengel, along side many others, categorically states "it seems inarguable that the release of 251,287 documents via wikileaks harms American national security and that Assange meant to do so".

Commentaries from India have ranged from puerile to churlish. N.Ram, educated in Journalism at Columbia, is the worst offender. When the Obama administration blew hot and cold about prosecuting Assange, N.Ram called it digital McCarthyism (referring to Amazon halting hosting of wikileaks). This to a country where a US President CANNOT prevent any newspaper from publishing what they want to. When George Bush got wind that NYT was preparing to run articles exposing US wire tapping programs he called the publisher to Oval office to discuss. This is the US President calling a news publisher to the OVAL OFFICE. Bush wanted to allay their concerns about abuses, he offered details to convince them and asked not to publish. NYT went away and later published the article cursorily telling the administration that the details offered did not convince them about checks to prevent abuses. Heads of State called to Oval office meeting with US Prez do not refuse but NYT publisher can do it and walk home free.

Assange also played coy with whom he chooses to give his leaks. He was miffed by some critical articles that NYT had run about him hence he chose to exclude NYT from his list of recipients (However The Guardian from UK struck an arrangement to share the leaks with NYT). This is not the unimpeachable conduct of a truth seeker or someone with loftier aims in exposing secrets. In a case of what goes around comes around his own sexual harassment case details are now leaked and he is fuming at the leaks. His secrets are to be his own while anybody else's is game for being exposed to prevent abuses.

NYT and Post which ran excerpts of wikileaks helpfully came up with a pictorial representation of where the cables originated from. Most cables were between open societies. Almost no leaks from anything Russian or Chinese. Quite a telling picture. If indeed he had anything on the Chinese I am sure the Chinese in China would not be reading it thanks to that governments censorship. Of course, in his own safety, its good nothing Russian was there, ask Alexander Litvinenko.

Another conundrum in this saga is the role of pro-wikileaks activists. When wikileaks had challenges to hosting its sites hundreds of activists convinced that this was a David versus Goliath affair took to defending wikileaks by, well, hacking the sites of companies that they thought treated wikileaks unfairly.  Have you observed the protesters at Climate Conferences and G-20 conferences? Protesting against corporations and MNC's they would cheerfully riot, loot and ransack everything in sight. Of course, we are told, they have no other reasonable avenue to convey their disagreements.

Sometimes even these exposers do not do so entirely out of some lofty ideals. Mark Felt, the famous 'Deep Throat' of Watergate era was motivated more out of personal agenda than for any discomfort with what Nixon's aides did.

What is undoubtable is that, for better or worse, wikileaks has changed the way US and international diplomacy will work in the years to come.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wikileaks: American Diplomacy At Work

The wikileaks saga has two perspectives to it. One, to judge  the revelations themselves. Two, the raging debate over secrecy, First Amendment rights, whistle-blowing etc. I'll restrict this blog to the revelations themselves. America, undoubtedly, is the laughing stock of the world right now. America's ability to guard secrets is in complete tatters. The reactions from the commentariat, the serious non-partisan ones, ranged from "it shows diplomacy at work" to "harm has been done". In fact Fareed Zakaria gushed that the revelations "show an American diplomatic establishment that is pretty good at analysis" (,8599,2034284,00.html) . Zakaria cites a British scholar's column in Guardian as writing that his opinion of the State Department has gone up several notches.Zakaria, sums, "When foreigners encounter U.S. diplomats and listen to their bland recitation of policy, they would do well to keep in mind that behind the facade lie some very clever minds."

That nations keep secrets, that diplomats say in private what they can NEVER say in public, that nations say one thing in public while expressing their concerns in private etc etc are not surprising. Only the naive would be shocked by such things. Fareed Zakaria and many others have discounted to put this episode alongside the "Pentagon Papers" affair. The Pentagon Papers affair relates to leaking a confidential study of Vietnam War. Those papers "exposed" American government's duplicity in promoting the Vietnam War, how the public was lied to. It exposed a systemic rot. Wikileaks has not "exposed" anything unknown. There is no gotcha moment here. If, for instance, there was a smoking gun about America going into Iraq at the behest of some oil company now THAT would have had the world sit up and heap scorn and vitriol. 
The cables pretty much confirm that American diplomats pursued in private what were well known public stands. The real surprise is the Arab street. When US invade Iraq, Bush and US were hated as 'islamophobic'. US concerns on Iran were labeled as 'islamophobia'. The cables reveal that Saudi Arabia actually was trying to get US to do something more than sanctions against Iran. What is jaw dropping is that some of that was coordinated with Israel. When India voted alongwith US against Iran the decrepit commies cried "foul" at the behest of Indian Muslims. Fareed Zakaria highlights, "We now have official confirmation of something many of us have been saying for years: Arab regimes share Israel's concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, since they do not have the massive nuclear deterrent that Israel possesses, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are probably even more nervous about an Iranian bomb".

I was browsing Der Spiegel (Germany's leading news paper) and the special section on wikileaks had articles with interesting headlines:

None of the above are really reprehensible goals in themselves. None of the above show any duplicity on part of America between what it said in public versus what it said in private.

The real clincher is the one on Iraq. While the 'oil' angle in Iraq is undeniable it was a complete trope that America was interested 'ONLY' in oil. I remember reading an article in NYT long back that amongst the oil contracts given by free Iraq only a minuscule came to US companies. Der Spiegel in an article titled "A lot of Blood for Little Oil". The following excerpt is compelling:

""No Blood for Oil" had been a slogan used by protesters against George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. A SPIEGEL cover story in January 2003 even carried the title "Blood for Oil" and analyzed Iraq's role as an oil power. Neoconservatives in Washington had always said that the money from Iraq's oil would be used to pay for the war and the reconstruction......
But the opposite came true. A lot of blood was spilled, but very little oil flowed for the US. With production of 2.5 million barrels of crude oil daily, production in Iraq has returned to close to its prewar levels. Forecasts now suggest it will take 20 years before that production is doubled or tripled, however. The US spent more than $700 billion on Iraq, but now Iraq's oil profits are going to other countries"

There has been no revelation that has given grounds for any diplomatic uproar between countries. Of course this has embarrassed the US and has seriously undermined how other nations feel let down in their trust of America's ability to keep diplomatic negotiations secret. Every great power, Russia and China especially indulge in exactly the same diplomatic maneuvers. The unmasking of Chinese hacking of Google is the only real meaty stuff and that's more concerning to the Chinese than to Americans.

To indulge in cheerleading of wikileaks as some vanguard against governmental abuse is sheer chicanery and absolutely puerile. There is no unearthing of some Katyn or My Lai kind of episode. There is not even something of the nature of Abhu Ghraib. There is no smoking gun here.

So much for the exposes themselves. How did America confront it? Was freedom of opinion or First Amendment breached in how wikileaks was dealt with by America? Is this on par with Pentagon Papers or even the Watergate expose? Is Julian Assange the digital equivalent of Bob Woodward's 'Deep Throat'? Await my next blog on that.