Monday December 04, 2023

Welcome to a season of leaks

October 04, 2022

‘Tis the season of leaks – except there is nothing festive about it. Pakistanis have been given involuntary access to closed-door and hitherto private conversations most of which, at least until now, appear to have taken place inside the Prime Minister’s Office, place of business to the country’s highest elected chief executive. It is nothing short of a serious breach and a national security incident.

The most important questions are: how were these conversations recorded and by whom and why and how have these surfaced on social media or leaked? Given the nature of the crisis, nothing short of razor-sharp focus and priority in finding clear and cogent answers to these questions was expected from those in charge. Instead comes the announcement of the ‘approval’ of the formation of a ‘high-level’ committee to ‘investigate’ the audio leaks and instruction to the law ministry to “prepare a legal framework regarding cyber-security”.

This ‘approval’ comes from none other than the country’s key body charged (erroneously) with ‘decision-making on national security’, – the National Security Committee (NSC) chaired by the prime minister with members including key federal ministers alongside high-ranking armed forces members. The response would be laughable if it were not for the seriousness of the issue at hand.

It is surprising that the federal government has not blamed any foreign hand in the illegal bugging of the PM House – something that has been apparently going on for quite some time. In fact, no one has been blamed and no possible suspects named or identified.

Instead, those in government have focussed on defending themselves by saying nothing illegal has happened in the audio leaks of meetings of the prime minister with his cabinet colleagues or his conversation with an officer on the case of the import of machinery from India for Ms Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law. Such clarifications have inadvertently verified the content of leaked audios and are a sort of tacit acceptance of the illegal practice of the bugging of the PM Office. At times, it has appeared as though the prime minister is also savouring some of the leaks that make him look good on principle.

Just like the formation of a committee to probe this, statements from as high an office holder as the prime minister whose audios have been leaked remain just as vague. It is a “very serious lapse”, said PM Sharif. “Who would trust [feel comfortable in] coming to the PM Office to talk to prime ministers now”, he questioned and left it at “the respect of 220 million people of Pakistan”. No deeper indignation, no culprits and no solutions!

While each one of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s expressions on the issue are valid, it is unclear why a prime minister needs to only raise questions when he is the only one who has the authority, and in fact responsibility, to find answers and bring culprits to account.

Perhaps the clearest position on audio leaks has come from our Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who said that no matter who the prime minister of Pakistan may be, he protests and strongly condemns the practice of the bugging of the office of the prime minister.

In response to a question in a TV interview to VOA, Mr Bilawal Bhutto Zardari used the following words: “Intelligence agencies bug offices in Pakistan and in the US. It is ok to the extent that it [the tapes] stays with those institutions. But especially when the question is that of the office of the prime minister, be it Prime Minister Imran Khan or Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, I wish to express serious reservations [and] condemn this [bugging of office of the prime minister]. This has raised a question of national security, to which we need a response. I know that the prime minister has ordered some kind of an investigation and I await its conclusion. But this [bugging of the office of the prime minister] is not a good practice. It’s not about Imran or Shehbaz.”

This is not the first time that the issue of illegal bugging has been highlighted publicly. Another state institution, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, has raised this concern in the strongest possible manner on more than one occasion. In July 2007, hearing a presidential reference against Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, thirteen (13) honourable justices went as far suspending the advocate-on-record for providing the ‘scandalous’ material against the chief justice and judges.

The Supreme court bench at the time also issued an order banning unauthorized access of intelligence operatives inside Supreme Court offices, and instructed the Intelligence Bureau director general to sweep Supreme Court offices and residences of judges for bugging devices and submit a sworn affidavit that all premises had been cleared of bugging gadgets within a week.

Through the pouring leaks now, social media is also abuzz with references to Steve Coll’s book ‘Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan’ – about the regular practice of bugging the presidency also. As president, Mr Asif Ali Zardari is quoted as saying to the then US secretary of defence, Mr Leon Panetta, in the presence of then DG ISI Mr Ahmed Shuja Pasha that: “Ahmed knows everything I think and everything I say. I walk into my office every morning and say “Hello Ahmed!”

Of course, the bugging and monitoring conversations of global leaders is carried out by intelligence agencies – but this is done for foreign powers and not national politicians and leaders. In all systems, some sort of in-country legal cover exists in this regard. And at least a national norm also.

However, the penchant to use this power as they may is neither new nor unique to Pakistan. Spain recently fired the head of its intelligence agency over hacking the phones of the prime minister and defence minister and earlier of citizens associated with the Catalan pro-independence movement. The head of the agency confirmed that at least the bugging of leaders of Catalonia pro-independence movement was done so after receiving judicial permission!

What should be our answer to deal with this national embarrassment? Will it be yet another committee probe, the report of which is filed in some dusty old cabinet in a government office or are we prepared to address this serious problem consistently carried out with impunity?

Another major question is: what have we been doing in keeping up with our needs on our cyber security? While global democracies have specifically set up units to prepare themselves to deal with cyber-attacks such as the UK’s National Cyber Force (NCF) including foreign intelligence agency MI6 and personnel from Defence Science and Technology and a large budget approval from the UK parliament, what are we doing in this regard?

The writer is an analyst working in the field of politics, democratic governance, legislative development and rule of law.