Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Hindu, N. Ram and Wikileaks

NDTV Chairman Prannoy Roy’s patty-cake chat with Wikileaks honcho Julius Assange on 21 March was a weird and disconcerting experience. Assange, appearing via a satellite hook-up from Britain was his usual sepulchral film-negative self. Roy too appeared to be from another dimension, remote from Indian loyalties and concerns.
The 50-minute programme began on a strongly anti-American note: a videoclip from a tape produced by Wikileaks in June 2010, showing a United States helicopter gunship in Iraq attacking a band of men on a city street. NDTV edited out the chatter in the gunship preceding the attack that indicated confusion about the identity of the men, several of them armed with Ak-47s, and one carrying what looked like an RPG. (The people killed in the attack were all identified as insurgents except for two Reuters journalists, one of them carrying a camera with a telephoto lens that was mistaken for the RPG.)

Immediately after the clip, Roy observed that Assange was “under global attack.” The United States, which usually killed its enemies, considered him one; his native Australia had accused him of treason; Sweden had charged him with rape. Was he “shocked by the ferocity and the illegalities” of these attacks by “the West” which prided itself on the rule of law? Assange allowed that he was “disappointed” the United States was not living up to the “great traditions of Franklin and Madison,” but that was “not shocking.” There was “a burgeoning security state” centered on Washington and spreading “into all the Western countries, and there is a Western alliance that responds very aggressively.” The strong spin at the beginning continued throughout the interview in Roy’s presumption that Assange’s motives and operations were honourable and worthy, and thus opposition to him dishonourable and unworthy.
Roy reinforced Assange’s claim to be a “journalist” without so much as a hint about charges that he is an Intelligence operative. Wired (UK) reported in September 2009 that “in January 2007, John Young, a member of the Wikileaks advisory board” had quit. “accusing the group of being a CIA conduit. After the split, he published over 150 pages of emails sent by members of Wikileaks on” The story also quoted another Wikileaks operative with the assumed name of Schmidt, who claimed that the group had “fed the speculation that it is CIA-funded” because there's “nothing better than half of the world thinking we are CIA. … As long as the right half believe this. It might encourage some people to submit material.” Assange personally is the recipient of the Sam Adams Award, presented annually by a group of retired CIA officials to an “intelligence professional who has taken a stand for integrity and ethics.” These are significant bits of information, necessary for an informed interpretation of the leaked American diplomatic cables.

Another critically important bit of information about Wikileaks appeared in a June 2010 story in The New Yorker. It recalled the time when Assange had designed the web site for his project and was looking for support to put it up. “Before launching the site, Assange needed to show potential contributors that it was viable. One of the WikiLeaks activists owned a server that was being used as a node for the Tor network. [The Tor nework is a system strucured to hide the origin and activities of Internet users, It is used by people who want high security for their operations.] Millions of secret transmissions passed through it. The activist noticed that hackers from China were using the network to gather foreign governments’ information, and began to record this traffic. Only a small fraction has ever been posted on WikiLeaks, but the initial tranche served as the site’s foundation, and Assange was able to say, “We have received over one million documents from thirteen countries.”

The importance of that paragraph lies in the revelation that Wikileaks might not be a global “whistleblowers” site as it is touted to be, but a showcase for hackers displaying stolen information. It raises huge questions about what exactly Assange is doing and why he is doing it.

Part 2

To understand what Assange is all about it is necessary to look at him as an individual and as a political phenomenon. His personal trajectory has been truly nightmarish. His mother left his father for another man when he was little, and then, after having borne the second man a son, took off with a third, her two sons in tow. To keep ahead of the family courts and law officers they moved constantly – 37 times by the time Assange was 16. By 18, he had a child of his own with a girl friend with whom he stayed in a squatter’s camp. Shortly after having his child, she went off with another man. The stress of the custody battle for his son is blamed for draining Assange’s brown hair of all colour. Given such conditions, it is not surprising that Assenge developed into an anti-establishment computer nerd. (Anyone who saw Angelina Jolie’s godawful teen movie Hackers will recognize him as a type.)

He first came onto law enforcement scanners in Australia by hacking into the mainframe of the Canadian telecom company Nortel. Although prosecuted for doing substantial damage, the judge let him go with a pat on the wrist, sure sign of a behind the scenes deal. He worked with the Australian Police after that, reportedly trying to capture on-line child pornographers. In college, from which he dropped out, he developed into a cryptographer, expert at unwrapping the elaborate cocoons of secret communications. It is possible he was recruited into adult Intelligence activities during this period, for his college did a lot of research for DARPA. Which national agency recruited him it is hard to say. It is also hard to say whether his later breakout into freelance Intelligence work reflects a real break with officialdom or is merely cover.

In 2006, when he was seeking support for Wikileaks, Assange wrote that his “primary targets” would be the “highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia,” but also expected “to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal illegal or immoral behavior in their own governments and corporations.” Evidently imbued with a romantic belief in a “social movement” to expose secrets, he hoped to “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality, including the US administration.” Since then, his targets have expanded to Scientology and Sarah Palin (whose private Yahoo account was wikileaked).

The site also published details of technology used by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan to detect the deadly explosive devices used by opposition forces. As it became apparent that the mere revelation of secrets would not bring down his targets, Assange tried various other approaches, including auctioning the leaked (or stolen) material to pique public interest and raise money. The current modus operandi is to make exclusive deals with national organizations, filtering all material through a mainstream media sensibility. Thus, readers have been given only carefully edited versions of the 256,000 diplomatic cables sent to Wikileaks by Pfc. Bradley Manning of the United States Army. No one has yet studied how the originals differ from what has been reported. In the case of The Guardian in Britain, a blogger has noted that it has edited out details relating to MI-6 operatives and the British investments of billionaire oligarchs. There is a PhD to be had in piecing together an overall pattern in what has been published around the world.

Predictably, Assange at 38 is deep in the rabbit hole. According to published reports, Wikileaks is not so much an organization as a nebulous network, ostensibly with only eight paid editors and no support staff. It has no real centre of operations except for Assange himself. It is “based in Sweden” only because national law there protects Internet anonymity, and Assange makes phone calls from Belgium because monitoring them is illegal there. Key members of his core group are unknown to each other, and even in encrypted emails one presents himself only as “M” (the traditional cover letter used by the head of Britain’s MI-6). That hint of an official connection might actually be significant, for not only did Assange seek refuge in Britain when he came under pressure from other governments, he found it at the 600-acre Norfolk estate of Vaughan Smith, described by The Guardian as “a former army officer, journalist adventurer and rightwing libertarian.” A former Grenadier Guard (like his father before him), Smith reportedly “impersonated” a British Army officer to “bluff” an American military unit into letting him ride along and videotape frontline action during the 1991 war.

Part 3

Information about Assange’s shadowy credentials constitutes essential context if Indian readers are to know what to make of the leaked American cables. However, in all the voluminous coverage The Hindu has given to the cables, there has not been one word of caution about Assange, no consideration of his motivation or the worth of his activities. Prannoy Roy in his NDTV promotion of Assange also steered clear of anything that could show him in a negative light. In closing out their conversation, Roy asked Assange if he had any “heroes.” After noting Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, Assange modestly admitted: “Many people call me, for example, a hero, but I am a man and a human being, just like all of us.” In an excess of unctuous goodwill Roy responded: “You are a hero to many of us.” (Interestingly, The Hindu omitted that exchange from its “transcript” and substituted a bit of text about how Assange’s “Mom” was a “fighter.” Also erased from the The Hindu’s record was Assange’s call for the American Ambassador to resign if the cable about vote buying proved to be inaccurate. (Ambassador Mulford, a Bush appointee, has long gone from New Delhi.) The Hindu further determined that it was not necessary to reflect in its “transcript” Roy’s naïve question to Assange if it was “normal” for the Indian government and Opposition to have such diametrically opposed views of the cables. These image-saving efforts on behalf of Assange and Roy did not extend to Manmohan Singh; The Hindu headlined Assange’s unfair and inaccurate on-air allegation that the Prime Minister had been less than honest in responding to the cable about a Congress Party slush fund for vote-buying.

In the NDTV interview the theme of Assange as victim was unremitting. “Now, with so many countries hunting you down, where can Julian Assange live safely?” Roy asked. “Right now, it is not clear if there is any country that is safe,” Assange replied, but added that Egypt and Tunisia “because of the revolution” might be safe havens. India too, might be big enough to withstand Western pressure and provide safety. The Hindu, for some inscrutable reason, deleted the reference to India from its “transcript.”

All this raises questions about these major Indian media organizations that go well beyond the Wikileaks phenomenon. Consider, for instance, The Hindu’s sense of priorities. On 15 March, the day a front-page banner headline – REVEALED: THE INDIA CABLES FROM WIKILEAKS – announced its coup in gaining exclusive access to the stolen American diplomatic communications, only a single other matter merited mention on page one. It was a below-the-fold single column story headlined “Meltdown threat after hydrogen blast at Japanese nuclear plant.” The editorial and op-ed pages (10-11) were filled with Wikileaked items, as was most of page 17. This was not because of a dearth of important news. Matters relegated to the inside pages (14 to 17) included:

1. After the detection of 22 cases of radiation poisoning the Japanese authorities had ordered people “within a 12-mile evacuation zone” in Fukushima to stay indoors.

2. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had ordered a safety review of Indian nuclear plants.

3. The Supreme Court had set a four-week deadline for clarification of the misuse of NREGA funds meant to help the poorest Indians.

4. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had announced the detection of tax evasion to the tune of Rs. One lakh crore.

5. The Indian Navy had captured 61 Somali pirates.

6. Maoists in Dantewada had killed three security personnel.

7. An Indian student had been raped and murdered in Australia.

8. Saudi troops had landed in Bahrain to suppress pro-democracy demonstrators.

9. Al Qaeda had issued a statement in Cairo calling for the removal of Qadhafi.

10. Libya had urged Chinese and Indian firms to take over oil production in the country from Western companies.

The news “revealed” by Wikileaks The Hindu considered more important than those stories (based on placement and space devoted to them) were the following:

1. In 2009 National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan told new American Ambassador Timothy Roemer that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a “great believer” in dialogue with Pakistan while others in the government were not (page one, top).

2. An account of the “stand-alone arrangement” The Hindu made with Wikileaks (page one, top, continued on edit page).

3. India was suspicious of Pakistan and wanted to restrict the information on 26/11 it provided to Islamabad (below fold, page one). A longer version of the same story appeared as the top op-ed item (page 11).

4. In 2005 India voted reluctantly against Iran at the IAEA to please the US (edit page top).

5. The World Bank representative in Nepal and the leader of the Maoists in the country had become ‘lunch pals’,” (page 11, mid-section). A longer story on the same page was headlined “In Nepal, ‘India’s Frankenstein monster’.” It dealt with cables going back to 2003 noting the differences of the US and Indian positions in Nepal.

6. The January 2006 cabinet reshuffle that saw Mani Shankar Aiyar give way to Murli Deora as the Petroleum Minister was a “pro-US tilt.”

7. After a radar system installed by India failed to detect LTTE aircraft before they attacked an airport in 2007, Sri Lanka asked the United States for technical assistance, which was given after a green light from New Delhi. (Page 17 top, 4-column headline)

8. India’s Iran policy was “designed for domestic consumption” and its “West Asia policy” was “hostage” to the “Muslim Vote;” in 2006 Ambassador Mulford described India’s policy towards Israel as “gutless” (Page 17, top and middle).

None of this is much of a revelation; in fact, most of the wikileaked information is passé. With two exceptions, none of the stories published since 15 March has offered anything sensational. The first exception was the allegation that a nonexistent aide to a close Gandhi family confidante had shown a nameless American Embassy staffer “two chests” of money for bribing Opposition Members of Parliament to support the government in the 2008 no-confidence motion (see item of March 17 below). The second item that rocked New Delhi was the revelation that BJP leader Arun Jaitley had told an American Embassy staffer that “Hindu nationalism” was merely an opportunistic ploy for his party. Both allegations were vehemently denied, but for a few days the political atmosphere in Delhi was poisonous with distrust. It will be a long time before Indian officialdom will feel at ease speaking frankly to American diplomats again.

Other than that, there is precious little noteworthy in the wikileaked material. So far, what The Hindu has downplayed is more interesting than its headlined themes. For instance, in N. Ram’s 15 March disquisition on the wide range of the Wikileaks revelations he mentioned a string of countries but not China, a topic that Assange in his NDTV appearance a week later flagged as potentially explosive in the Indian context. N. Ram is famously sympathetic to China, and it remains to be seen how his paper will play the matter.

Also significant was reporter P. Sainath's decision to bury in his story on Nepal (item 5 above), the reference to British policy. In a September 2006 cable sent by American Ambassador James Moriarty, he noted that the “Brits … seem convinced the Maoists will soon be coming into power and are trying to convince themselves that might not be so bad.” Reporting that he was “trying to push back here on some of this,” he wrote, “it would help if the [State] Department could have a serious, high-level discussion with the Brits on Nepal.” The US-UK policy gap is not confined to Maoists in Nepal, and it holds the key to interpreting the Wikileaks phenomenon.

Part 4

Julian Assange told NDTV’s Prannoy Roy during their 21st March chat that the “most serious issue in the cables” was “yet to be revealed.” He added, “That doesn't mean The Hindu is necessarily holding back what it thinks to be most important for Indians to the last ... the material from Pakistan, from China. It is likely to be of interest to the Indian population.” As of 3 April, there has been so sign of such “serious” revelations; The Hindu has carried no items at all on China, and there has been a strangely anodyne quality about its items on Pakistan.

In fact, some stories on Pakistan have downplayed newsworthy material. For instance, the issue of 19 March carried at the bottom of the Op-Ed page the quizzical headline “Pakistan backed militants to avoid being targeted?” The story, by P. Sainath, was about a 2008 Intelligence briefing for NATO representatives by an American analyst. He told them that despite impending economic disaster, “Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world,” and that the government in Islamabad continued to provide “Intelligence and financial support” to the Taliban and al-Qaeda “to conduct attacks in Afghanistan against Afghan government, ISAF [the NATO-led force] and Indian targets.”

Sainath noted that the analyst “described FATA as ‘the command and control centre for al-Qaeda worldwide’,” but that despite “al-Qaeda’s presence in the FATA … it plays a surprisingly insignificant role in Afghanistan, where the numbers of foreign fighters remain relatively low.” Sainath did not explain that the acronym FATA stands for Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He also left out a great deal of relevant detail about the situation in Afghanistan. To quote from the original cable, Lavoy “said a few hundred senior and mid-level trainers, planners, and operators reside there” [in the FATA], and although al-Qaida was “more disrupted than at any time since October 2001 … the organization is damaged, not broken.” He said “the international community cannot afford to let pressure off al-Qaida, because it has demonstrated an ability to reconstitute itself in the past, and could easily reverse-migrate back to Afghanistan if the Taliban were to regain control. Lavoy emphasized that the consequences of failing in Afghanistan and permitting al-Qaida to shift its center of gravity to Afghanistan would pose a threat to all nations inside their own borders.”

Lavoy “underlined that there are more significant factors than al-Qaida that contribute to the bleak security situation.” Given the ineffectiveness of the Karzai government , the Taliban were manipulating “the grievances of disgruntled, disenfranchised tribes to win over anti-government recruits.” He urged the international community to address several “inter-dependent regional challenges.” They included defeating al-Qaida in FATA, improving the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, Baluchistan, and the FATA; stabilizing Pakistan's tattered economy; and improving the India-Pakistan relationship. A key problem was that the Taliban had “become more militarily effective” and was “demonstrating more sophisticated infantry, communications, and command and control techniques.” Their marksmanship was “more precise, and their explosives more lethal than in previous years.” For those reasons, he noted, “violent attacks initiated by insurgents rose 40 percent over the past year” (ie 2008-2009). Asked about “the source of expertise and financing” that allowed “the Taliban to become militarily proficient, especially if the number of al-Qaida senior and mid-level personnel is low,” Lavoy seems to have been evasive. He only noted “that the opium economy is the number one domestic funding source for Pakistan-oriented and Afghan Taliban organizations” and that the insurgents had “proven themselves highly adaptable, and many fighters' veteran status contributed to opposing forces' improved abilities.” Also a problem was that ISAF resources for training the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) were seriously deficient. Even if those were remedied, “efforts would be insufficient if Pakistan remains a safe haven for insurgents.”

Lavoy “commented on two causes of instability in western Pakistan that could cause Pakistan to completely lose control of its Pashtun territories over the next few years. Traditional Pashtun tribal authority has broken down since the anti-Soviet jihad period,” and was “no longer capable of resolving social harmony at the community level.” Pakistan had “promulgated a policy of neglect of Pashtun areas” and still lacked “a strategy to deal holistically with social problems of illiteracy, unemployment, and disaffected youth.” That situation played to the advantage of insurgent and extremist groups. Although Pakistan now identified “both al-Qaida and the Taliban as existential threats,” government institutions still supported the Taliban in two key ways. They permitted the “Quetta Taliban Shura (the Taliban leadership council) to operate unfettered in Baluchistan province” and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provided “intelligence and financial support to insurgent groups - especially the Jalaluddin Haqqani network out of Miram Shah, North Waziristan.”

Questioned about “the rationality of Pakistan's support for the Taliban,” Lavoy explained it in terms of three Pakistani perceptions. First, that “the Taliban will prevail in the long term, at least in the Pashtun belt most proximate to the Pakistani border.” Second, that India was “its number one threat” and finally, that “if militant groups were not attacking in Afghanistan, they would seek out Pakistani targets.” Lavoy said that after the storming of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in July 2007, the Pakistani government had “tried to sever ties with insurgent groups that its government institutions had cultivated over three decades. When militants sought al-Qaida support and launched a wave of attacks against Pakistani government and security personnel,” the government “realized it had lost control of these insurgent groups.” It then “rapidly approached the various militant groups to reach domestic non-aggression deals. He claimed that the Pakistani Army's ill-conceived operations in the FATA's Bajaur Agency were “directed exclusively against insurgent groups that refused to cooperate; the Haqqani network remained “untouched” and continued “a policy of cross-border attacks.” The Pakistani Army had no counter-insurgency strategy in Bajaur. It required “the population to flee,” attacked the remaining insurgents and then used “air power to raze all structures associated with militants (tunnels, homes, infrastructure, etc.).”

Another story about Pakistan  had the headline “MEA added to confusion over 2008 hoax call to Zardari.” Written by Nirupama Subramaniam, it appeared at the bottom of the Op-Ed page on 23 March. It dealt with a seemingly bizarre episode during the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, when President Zardari of Pakistan took a call from a person he thought was Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee. The caller threatened military action. When the American Embassy in Delhi contacted the Ministry of External Affairs to ask about the call, an official who had prepared speaking points for use by Mukherjee as a contingency measure, jumped to the conclusion that they had been used. The confusion was soon set right and had no impact on the course of events. What is intriguing about The Hindu  headline is that it did not capture the main point of interest in the story that followed. The hoax caller clearly intended to provoke an India-Pakistan war. In fact, Pakistan ordered aircraft into the air as a precautionary measure. A year later, DAWN, the Pakistani newspaper, revealed that the caller was none other than Omar Saeed Shaikh, the man released from an Indian prison in 2004 in exchange for the hostages on an Indian Airlines flight hijacked from Nepal; he went on to murder Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. DAWN said he made the call on a mobile phone from his Karachi prison cell. All this is in the story but the headline chose to focus on a bit of inconsequential confusion in the MEA.

Is there a method in The Hindu's crazy coverage of the wikileaked cables? That will be the topic of the next and final section of this long comment.

Part 5

This final section of the commentary on how two major Indian media organizations – The Hindu and NDTV –dealt with Wikileaks sums up and puts into meaningful political context the previous sections and the post of 17 March.
Wikileaks is a shadowy operation that presents itself as a “whistleblower” website. It claims to have published some 1.2 million secret documents since going on-line in 2006. (That is over 600 documents per day, which Assange asserts are authentic -- a patently untenable claim.) The published material has ranged from the correspondence of the Scientology Church and Sarah Palin’s email, to hundreds of thousands of stolen American diplomatic cables. The cables supposedly came from a disaffected American soldier posted in Iraq who had access to a computer containing the US State Department’s archives. They have been released since the fall of 2010, initially through several Western newspapers, each of which edited out what they thought their readers did not need to know; since 15 March 2011, The Hindu has done that with some 5000 cables pertaining to India. As previous parts of this blog have pointed out, the matters it has sensationalized and those it has downplayed or omitted to mention at all, are incomprehensible from an Indian political perspective.

So far, the cables have not revealed anything of earthshaking importance. However, they have been a major embarrassment to the United States, for they are the daily dross of reporting from diplomatic posts around the world, and mention the names of numerous foreign sources. Those sources too have been embarrassed. Coverage of the cables in Indian media generally, and especially on NDTV and The Hindu has been emphatically anti-American. This skewed presentation has turned embarrassment to national injury.

 By showing Indian officials kowtowing to the United States, it has made it difficult, if not impossible for the Manmohan Singh government to pursue the strategic relationship between the two countries. The rejection of the American fighter aircraft on offer for the Indian Air Force on technical grounds can be seen as a symptomatic of this situation; the broader political and strategic benefits of buying American had to be foregone because no Indian official wanted to be accused of bending to pressure from Washington.

The major beneficiaries of this outcome are China and Europe, the former because India is weakened by not having a strong military relationship with the US, and the latter, because its companies will now be the beneficiaries of the $10 billion Indian contract.

Within Europe, the major strategic beneficiary will be Britain, which had the most to lose from a strengthening Delhi-Washington connection. That is because Britain created Pakistan in 1947 to be a proxy against India; a strong partnership between India and the US would make that arrangement untenable. The China-Britain nexus is also behind Wikileaks. As noted in an earlier section of this blog, the site got its initial supply of secret documents from material stolen by Chinese hackers using the Tor high-security network, and Assange’s career as an Intelligence operative suggests a close connection with MI-6.

In assessing The Hindu’s presentation of the stolen American cables purveyed by Wikileaks that background is important. It throws into high relief the deeply antinational nature of the coverage and raises serious questions about  N. Ram, the Editor in Chief of the newspaper.  

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