WHAT do Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and the Abbottabad Commission Report have in common? Each of them sprang a leak.
The first three — Ellsberg, Assange and Snowden — revealed information that the US and other governments expected to be kept secret. The fourth, the Abbottabad Commission report (or at least a draft of it), escaped before it could be officially released.
In 1971, Ellsberg discomfited president Nixon’s administration by revealing documents known as the Pentagon Papers which exposed the questionable decision-making process within the US government during the Vietnam War.
Ellsberg was an employee of the Rand Corporation, a “non-profit global think tank” financed by the US government and private-sector corporations, universities and individuals.
In 2010, Julian Assange, an Australian news editor, embarrassed the US government by publishing US military and diplomatic documents. This year, Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and until recently that of the nominally independent consulting firm Booz, Allen, Hamilton, divulged information about the US and British mass surveillance programmes.
Unlike the other three, the Abbottabad Commission report has no known prime mover. So far, no-one has admitted paternity to it.
Some will recall its predecessor the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report of 1972, a judicial commission set up to “to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the atrocities and 1971 war” and “the circumstances in which the commander of the Eastern High Command surrendered the Eastern contingent forces under his command laid down their arms”.
Originally, 12 copies of the report were prepared. All but one were said to have been destroyed. The sole survivor was said to have been kept by president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto under his bed.
A copy surfaced finally in 2000 and appeared in newspapers. Even its sanitised, declassified version, when published as
an afterthought by the government, voiced scathing criticism of the failure of the Pakistan military, the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Federal Investigation Agency. It could almost have been a template for the Abbottabad Commission report.
What makes such disclosures such piquant reading? Is it because the public is genuinely shocked at the duplicity of its own government? Or is it because the truth revealed merely confirms the suspicions a sceptical, distrustful public has of those responsible to protect its national sovereignty and to safeguard its security?
When so much of the national budget is eaten away on the war cry of security, at the expense of schools, hospitals, communications, and energy supplies (to name a few), the public has grounds to ask why so much is spent on so few to such little benefit.
That Osama bin Laden could live in Pakistan without a visa, buy a plot, build a house, cohabit with a number of wives, procreate, rear children without sending them to school, to survive in an overhead bunker with impunity for so many years (in effect, a Pakistani in purdah) suggests that he enjoyed a level of immunity short of overt, official patronage.
The American wit Ambrose Bierce once began a short story with the eye-catching line: The fact that Jones was buried was not incontrovertible proof to him that he was dead. Jones was always a difficult man to convince.
Confidential information assumed by governments to have been securely interred in its vaults was buried, but not dead. Ellsberg, Assange, Snowden, and the Abbottabad Commission have demonstrated that. The public has been an easy audience to convince.
Interestingly, the BBC recently broadcast a programme on the activities of Mr Altaf Hussain, the now British leader of Pakistan’s MQM party. Mr Farooq Sattar, when interviewed by the BBC, put up a spirited defence of his leader.
It was when Mr Sattar expressed his concern that the BBC had been infiltrated by the Taliban that he lost the interest of his TV host, and the sympathy of his audience.
The BBC also obtained and then disclosed a letter sent by Mr Altaf Hussain to the British prime minister Tony Blair in September 2001, offering the services of his MQM party members as “unlimited resources throughout the towns and villages in the province of Sindh and the province of Punjab to some extent, to monitor the activities of fundamentalists and Taliban-led organisations, and also to monitor the activities of madressahs”. In return, all he wanted from PM Blair was “participation in governing the province of Sindh and in disbanding the ISI”.
Now, Mr Altaf Hussain is finding himself under scrutiny and investigation by the British authorities. His homes in London are being raided by Scotland Yard, questions are being asked about the source of large caches of money found in them, and he is being asked to explain his lifestyle akin to mystical levitation — without any visible means of support.
Mr Hussain will no doubt have access to a brief of lawyers to advise him in his predicament.
Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and Edward Snowden trapped between lounges at Moscow airport might well envy him this luxury.
They have learned that, no matter how potent the information they leak and no matter how many holes they can make in the sieves of security, national interests always outweigh individual conscience.
The writer is an internationally recognised art historian and author.