Open secrets

Published October 6, 2022
The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

A CIPHER is designed to be a private language, to be understood by the sender and the recipient, unlike Esperanto which its proponents hoped would one day be a language for all mankind. Today, the closest we have to Esperanto is English. By 3022, it will be Chinese.

Cryptography or the use of ciphers to ensure secrecy has been in use for millennia, between politicians, between commanders, between conspirators, even hapless lovers forced to communicate (as the Kama Sutra tells us) using “words in a peculiar way”.

Mary Queen of Scots lost her head after her cipher was broken by her English cousin and rival Elizabeth I.

During World War I, an encrypted ‘Zimmerman’ telegram sent by Germany to its ambassador to Mexico was decoded and precipitated the United States to join the beleaguered Allies.

Nations are tethered to agreements by cords of intent.

Perhaps the most famous has been the German Enigma code used in World War II. It was broken with painstaking diligence by the British and enabled the Allies to anticipate German actions.

Every modern government develops its own cipher for communications between its foreign office and ambassadors in the field. The code used to be supplied in a manual, kept under lock and key, accessible only to the most trusted. When, in 1971, hostilities broke out between West and East Pakistan, one of the Bengali ambassadors opted for the incipient Bangladesh and took with him the Pakistan government cipher book, with predictable consequences.

Today, a former prime minister has made the official cipher an object of contention between his PTI party and the PML-N led government. To the average Pakistani, it seems inconceivable that a secret communication (however incendiary its message) bet­ween one of our embassies and the Foreign Office should be crumpled into a projectile, like some schoolboy’s paper dart, and tossed backwards and forwards between politicians.

That message, like hundreds of others that land every day on the various desks in the Foreign Office, deserved to be buried, read but unsung, a byline instead of becoming, as it has, a headline.

Some months ago, a cabinet stung by the language of the message retaliated by issuing a demarche to the US. Today, another cabinet seeks to chastise the former prime minister for conspiring to misuse the message and worse, to take the original (a state document) home with him. His defence is that a copy lies in the Foreign Office records anyway.

Had he been familiar with US history, he would have known that after president Richard Nixon’s removal from the White House in August 1974, all his official papers were sequestered to prevent him tampering with the official records. They were stored for over 30 years in the US National Archives in College Park, Maryland until their removal in 2007 to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California.

For every country, its archives are the tangible chronicle of its history, a Bayeux tapestry or the -namas so beloved of the Mughal emperors (the Baburnama, the Akbarnama, and the Jahangir-nama). Unlike them, though, they are not a version of history but the stuff from which history is moulded. To remove a piece of it is akin to removing two strands or a double helix of one’s national DNA. The future is affected by it.

Some may argue that a cipher message is nothing more than a piece of paper. They are right. The Munich Agreement waved by Neville Chamberlain in September 1939 after his negotiations with Hitler was nothing more than a piece of paper.

The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 is nothing more than bound pieces of paper. The Shimla Agreement of 1972 and the Lahore Declaration of 1999 between India and Pakistan can be dismissed (as they have been by Modi’s government) as mere pieces of paper. Yet, such agreements have significance. Nations are tethered to them by cords of intent.

Can any government today protect itself against a determined leaker? Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have shown the statute of limitations is toothless. The public can learn almost in real time what its government is doing and more importantly what it is hiding. Snowden, an American has been granted Russian nationality; Assange, an Australian resists deportation to the US. Which country would be willing to offer asylum to our former prime minister for his gratuitous leak? Certainly not the US. The Biden administration is too busy hosting our COAS even though his tenure expires on Nov 28.

The CEO of a multinational once asked me how he could keep decisions secret in the company. “Simple,” I advised him. “Paste it on the notice board. No one ever looks at the notice board.”

My advice to the government is to publish any secret communications in the Official Gazette. No one ever reads it.

The writer is an author.

www.fsaijazuddin.pk

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2022

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