The cabinet has formally given the go-ahead to hold an inquiry into the audio leaks purportedly featuring PTI Chairman Imran Khan and his party leaders, it emerged on Sunday.
On Friday, the cabinet suggested that legal action could be taken after a steady stream of audio recordings surfaced, most recently of informal conversations allegedly between Imran and his aides — Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Asad Umar and his former principal secretary Azam Khan — purportedly discussing the cipher that the PTI chief has for long presented as evidence of a “foreign conspiracy” to oust him from office.
According to Cabinet Division documents dated October 1, which Dawn.com has seen, the Friday meeting had constituted a sub-committee “to deliberate and recommend actions regarding the conversation of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan, his political associates and the then secretary to the PM, available on the internet regarding the cipher message received from Parep Washington (Cipher No. 1-0678 dated March 7, 2022)”.
“Therefore, the apex investigation agency (FIA) may be directed to inquire into the matter by constituting a team of senior officers, which may co-opt officers/officials from other intelligence agencies for the purpose, and to proceed further against the perpetrators in accordance with the law,” the memo said.
The cabinet also sought the implementation report on its suggestions “immediately”.
In a handout issued after the Friday huddle, it was revealed that a copy of the cipher had gone “missing” from the Prime Minister House records, and the cabinet had subsequently formed a special committee which would determine the legal action to be taken against all those involved, including the ex-premier, ex-principal secretary to prime minister Azam Khan and senior ministers.
“The cabinet committee will consist of the representatives of the coalition parties in the government, along with ministers,” the handout issued had said.
The handout had declared that the “theft of diplomatic cipher records is an unforgivable crime” and violation of the Official Secrets Act, 1923.
The cabinet was told that the audios purportedly featuring Imran and his aides exposed “the criminal conspiracy of the former government”, while the cipher was given “fictitious meanings for political mileage and subsequently it was stolen after fraud, forgery, fabrication.”
Meanwhile, PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz maintained that the cipher was not just a piece of paper, saying “it belongs to the state of Pakistan.”
“Whoever violates the interests of the state by betraying the national trust should be made an example so that no foreign agent dares to harm the country in a political guise.”
PTI leaders react to cabinet’s decision
Senior PTI leader Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the cabinet summary has “proved that the cipher is a reality”.
“The government has accepted our stance on the cipher,” he told a gathering in Multan today. Qureshi said his party is not afraid of the investigations announced by the government.
“We never took a step that harmed the interests of Pakistan. We served this country with dignity and will continue doing so,” he insisted.
Fawad Chaudhry pointed out a date of the cipher received to the then government in the summary issued by the cabinet, saying he hoped that PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz “will not change her position on cipher investigation from independent commission”.
Senator Shibli Faraz also said the cipher is a reality, adding it was also shared by the PTI government with the National Assembly speaker and the chief justice of Pakistan among others.
“What is the discussion about? Is it to divert the attn from tanking economy or smoke screen Dar’s & Maryum NRO?” he asked.
‘New drama is being concocted’: Imran
Meanwhile, addressing a party rally in Taxila, Imran said that government figures who had once denied the cipher’s existence were now concocting a “new drama” about its disappearance.
Addressing Maryam, he said the cipher was not missing. “You want it to remain missing otherwise it will be known that your uncle and father conspired with the US and toppled our government,” he alleged.
Imran advised Maryam to ask the Foreign Office (FO) about the missing document’s whereabouts, claiming that the “master copy” was still with the FO.
A couple of audios purportedly featuring Imran and his party leaders have surfaced on social media so far, prompting clamours from leaders of the ruling coalition for an action against the ex-premier for allegedly undermining national security.
In the first audio clip leaked on Sep 28, the former prime minister can be heard telling Azam to “play up” the cipher and turn it into a foreign plot to oust his government. He, however, adds that there is no need to name any country. “We only have to play it up. We don’t have to name America. We only have to play with this, that this date [of the no-trust vote] was [decided] before.”
To this end, Azam is heard suggesting to Imran to call a “meeting of then-foreign minister Qureshi and foreign secretary wherein we will ask Qureshi to read out the letter. So whatever he will tell us, I will type it down and convert it into [meeting] minutes” so that it becomes part of the office record.
Later in another audio clip that surfaced on social media on Sep 30, a voice, believed to be Imran’s, was heard saying: “Shah Jee we have to hold a meeting tomorrow […] you and the three of us (Imran, Qureshi and Azam Khan) and the foreign secretary.
“In it [the meeting], we have to tell them to quietly write the minutes of the meeting […] Azam is saying that we should draft the minutes and make photocopies of it.”
Here, the second voice, believed to be of Azam, was heard asking, “this cipher arrived on 7th or 8th […] it came on 8th”.
Here, the person on the other end, purportedly Imran, is heard saying that the meeting was held on the 7th.
“We don’t have to name the Americans […] under no circumstances do we have to take the name. So on this issue please, the name of the country should not come out of anyone. This is very important for all of you.
“That which country the letter came from […] I don’t want to hear the name from anyone,” the person believed to be Imran said.
In turn, the voice, supposedly belonging to Umar, can be heard saying: “Are you saying letter deliberately? This is not [a] letter, it is the meeting’s transcript.”
In his reply, the man believed to be Imran says that both the letter and the transcript were “the same thing”.
“People wouldn’t have understood the transcript. You say [things] like this in your jalsa,” Imran allegedly said.
The controversy surrounding the no-confidence motion against the former premier Imran Khan took a dramatic turn when the embattled PM brandished a letter at a rally on March 27 — days before his ouster — claiming it contained evidence of a “foreign conspiracy” hatched to topple his government.
Imran had kept mum about the contents of the letter when he first unveiled it but he spilled the beans days later by naming the United States when the exit of his government appeared imminent.
Imran’s allegation that the US spearheaded his exit from power was based on a cipher received from Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Asad Majeed, in which the envoy had reported about a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs Donald Lu.
Majeed had reportedly said that Donald Lu warned that Imran Khan’s continuation in office, who was set to face a vote of no confidence, would have repercussions on bilateral relations.
The US was said to be annoyed with Imran over his “independent foreign policy” and visit to Moscow.
The Pentagon and the State Department have repeatedly rejected the accusations, saying there was no veracity to it.
The National Security Committee (NSC), which includes all services chiefs as well as the head of Pakistan’s top intelligence agency, took up the matter on March 31 with then-premier Imran Khan in the chair. The forum decided to issue a “strong demarche” to a country that it did not name over what it termed as “blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan”.
It had also termed the interference “unacceptable under any circumstances” and said the language used in the communique was undiplomatic.
While the forum had stopped short of calling the interference a conspiracy at the time, another meeting of the NSC was held on April 22 with newly elected premier Shehbaz Sharif in the chair, and which included the same military chiefs who attended the March 31 session.
During its second meeting, the NSC statement said it “reaffirmed the decisions of the last NSC meeting” and explicitly went on to add that it found no evidence of a foreign conspiracy.