Thursday, September 15, 2011

Making sense of Wikileaks

The Indian media has devoted a great deal of space and air time on the revelations from the hundreds of cables that were put on the internet by Julian Assange and Co. What is it that fascinates about the information?  There are the odd comments on people and their foibles, but maybe it is the frank mirror they show to our society that’s so engaging. Or, it is the perverse thrill of reading something that was not meant for our eyes, the kind you get when you read someone else’s mail or eavesdrop on a conversation.
Had most of these documents come out, as they invariably do, after a period of ten or fifteen years, there would not have been much comment. After all, the United States publishes the declassified diplomatic papers in its turgid Foreign Relations of the United States series which is of interest mainly to the historian. But Wikileaks has given us a glimpse of the secret communication, between American diplomats in the field and their headquarters, about events that have occurred just the other day, dealing with the high and mighty like Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and others, with a blunt forthrightness that you do not see in the Indian media.

What is striking is the systematic manner in which the world’s sole superpower works to vacuum information about opinions, trends and events across the world. From September 5-8, 2008, for example, US diplomats were, to go by one cable, preoccupied, among other things, with the respiratory health of Indians because of an Indo-US working group on indoor air pollution (IAP) that was taking place in Chandigarh. Among the vicarious details that the cable revealed was that IAP kills between 400,000 and 2 million Indians each year. This is not something that has, notwithstanding its seriousness, exercised Indians themselves very much.
We must understand these cables are merely a record of diplomatic traffic. You will find in them some secrets, but you do not have the more secret CIA or Pentagon cables here. They are the bread and butter reports of diplomats, and you can be sure that Indian diplomats, too, send similar posts back home.
The problem is that our diplomatic service is so small that it cannot compete with the Americans, even on their own turf in, say, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Neither do they have the sweep of the Americans who wondered in February 2010 why the Indian MEA officer dealing with the UN has not heard that an Indian, Kamlesh Vikamsey, is a candidate to head the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services in New York. For its part, the Embassy in New Delhi got Vikamsey’s bio-data from the net and passed it on to Washington DC. Vikamsey is a well-known Mumbai-based chartered accountant who was once president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI).
Since they are internal reports which were not meant to be made public, at least in the short term, there is every effort on the part of the writer to be objective. The American diplomats are quite professional and assiduous in seeking information on a particular subject. A cable, say, on the Sino-Indian border issue will contain a summary of the issue, official briefings from the Ministry of External Affairs, from the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, professors from Jawaharlal Nehru University and, perhaps, a former diplomat.
The Indian cables are largely from the 2004 to February 2010 period, though there are the odd cables from 1985 from the US Embassy in Dublin and Ottawa, relating to the crash of AI 182 Boeing 747, caused by a terrorist bomb.
In the 2004-2010 period, the principal events of importance in India were, besides the political upheavals, terrorist violence, the expansion of Maoism, India-Pakistan engagement, the developments in Kashmir, Sino-Indian talks, and climate change. They also include the growing relationship between the US and India, covering the issue of terrorism and culminating in the Indo-US nuclear deal.

The cable traffic shows foreign policy as  a conversation of the elite officials who make foreign policy. The cable that reveals that India was merely going through the motions of seeking David Coleman Headley’s extradition is not unusual. Sometimes, as the then National Security Adviser M K Narayanan seems to say, “the people” have to be kept away from  sensitive issues. For him, and for many of us, it was more than clear, given the course of the legal proceedings against Headley, that the US was unlikely to extradite him, and so there was little point in pressing the case in any but the most formal way.
There is, to my mind, just one cable that is truly revealing. It is the one relating to the activities of the Congress party in the run-up to the confidence vote in Parliament on July 21-22, 2008. The cable of July 17 refers to a meeting between a US officer and Captain Satish Sharma who revealed among other things that the Congress was trying to work through financier Sant Singh Chatwal to get the eight Akali Dal votes, but that had not worked. Besides a couple of other options, Sharma told the officer “that he was also exploring the possibility of trying to get former Prime Minister Vajpayee's son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya to speak to BJP representatives to try to divide the BJP ranks.”
And then comes the bombshell, “Sharma's political aide Nachiketa Kapur mentioned to an Embassy staff member in an aside on July 16 that Ajit Singh's RLD had been paid Rupees 10 crore (about $2.5 million) for each of their four MPs to support the government…. Kapur showed the Embassy employee two chests containing cash and said that around Rupees 50-60 crore (about $25 million) was lying around the house for use as pay-offs.”

Given what actually happened in the trust vote, and the Delhi Police’s investigations relating to Amar Singh, surely this is a valid lead that needs to be pursued. Not surprisingly, Captain Sharma has denied that he bribed any MPs, and to top it all, he went on to deny that he ever knew Nachiketa Kapur. This cable classified “secret”, signed by Deputy Chief of Mission Stephen White, would have in normal course been available for declassification only in July 2018. There is no apparent need or cause for the political officers of the embassy to have made up this tale. Of course, the obvious corollary from Kapur’s action of showing the Americans the money for the bribery, suggests that the US knew more about the source of the money than it is letting on. You don’t show chests of money to anyone, except an interested party, or partner investor.
Many have seen in Wikileaks the beginning of a trend towards demystifying government. It certainly marks the beginning of an era where information, because of its digital nature, can be leaked wholesale. But that does not mean it is a trend.
Neither is such a situation desirable. While governments need to be far more open than they are, they do need some room for maneuver, especially on interstate relations. Honesty and transparency in personal and public life is a good thing, but absolute honesty and openness would make life unbearable.
 Those who are involved with Wikileaks see themselves as campaigners against secrecy. But the blanket  and indeed indiscriminate leakage suggests they are not quite what they claim they are. They are not revolutionaries wanting to change society, but nihilists who do something without knowing what they really want.
(Voluntary disclosure: This writer figures in a handful of cables, but in his own view, in a fairly innocuous manner) Mail Today September 6, 2011
Mail Today September 6, 2011

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