• Imran’s critics dispute Intercept claim of a military leak, insist only PTI chief had access to document
• Bilawal terms purported cable ‘inauthentic’
• Experts say even if true, published text shows no evidence of “US conspiracy”

WASHINGTON: The authen­­t­­ic­ity of the purported text of a diplomatic cable — detailing a meeting held last year between Pakistan’s then-ambassador to the US and senior State Department officials — seems to have become a massive bone of contention.

While Pakistan’s Foreign Office has refrained from commenting on the leaks, an artfully diplomatic comment by US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller during a recent briefing has piqued interest in the question of the purported leak’s provenance.

US-based news outlet The Intercept, which earlier this week reproduced what it claimed was the cipher in question, said in its report that the document was provided to it by “an anonymous source in the Pakistani military who said that they had no ties to Imran Khan or Khan’s party”.

However, many people — mostly Mr Khan’s critics — insist that the leak could only have come from the PTI.

Even the outgoing foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, believes that the document published by The Intercept was “inauthentic”. Pointing to the timing of the purported leak, he told Dawn that the military did not even have access to the diplomatic cable.

The Foreign Office follows a “very strict protocol” and shares such cables only with the prime minister, the foreign minister, the head of the country’s spy agency, and a few others, Mr Bhutto-Zardari told Dawn, adding that all cables are then returned to the Foreign Office.

Since the publication of the purported cable, journalists from The Intercept have been engaging with naysayers who have been casting doubts on the veracity or source of the diplomatic cable, challenging them to provide proof for their claims about the origin of the purported document.

In the original report, several lines are devoted to the provenance of the document — as if the writers knew in advance that they would face questions on this front.

The Intercept’s source, who had access to the document as a member of the military, spoke of their growing disillusionment with the country’s military leadership, the impact on the military’s morale following its involvement in the political fight against Khan,” the news organisation said in its Aug 9 story.

However, Mr Bhutto-Zardari echoed the suspicions voiced by this cabinet colleague — outgoing interior minister Rana Sanaullah — saying that only one copy of the cable had gone missing, “the one given to the then PM [Imran Khan], who even told the media he lost it”.

“So, either the leak is fake, or it came from [Imran]. Perhaps, Imran Khan said to his supporters that if I go to jail, leak this cable to claim I went to jail because America wanted it. And if it came from him, then it’s a clear violation of the Official Secrets Act and he should be tried for it.”

Mr Bhutto-Zardari also noted that the publishers had not shown anything so far to authenticate the purported leak. “Anything can be typed up on a piece of paper. No one can say what was there in the telegram and what was not. Without authentication, it does not have any value. It should be verified first,” he said.

Evidence of conspiracy?

There is also a great deal of debate over whether the purported text of the cable actually provides evidence of a conspiracy against Mr Khan’s government.

According to Mr Miller of the State Department, “It is not in any way the US government expressing a preference on who the leadership of Pakistan ought to be.”

During a briefing held after the publication of The Intercept story, when a journalist asked whether the spokesperson was saying that the substance of this report was accurate, but it did not represent US views, Mr Miller responded with: “Close-ish.”

Describing the “close-ish” comment as “a diplomatic term of art”, the journalist asked him what it meant.

“I’ll explain what I mean by that, which is I cannot speak to the veracity of this document. What I can say (is that) even if those comments were hundred per cent accurate as reported, which I do not know them to be — they do not in any way show a representative of the State Department taking a position on who the leadership ought to be,” Mr Miller said.

This view seems to be shared by others in the diplomatic community. Prof Touqir Hussain, a former Pakistani diplomat who currently teaches diplomacy and foreign policy at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities, told Dawn that he did not see any element of “conspiracy” or a “specific threat” in the contents of the cipher published by The Intercept.

“[There is] a warning certainly in a language that superpowers often use to seek compliance from a country dependent on their support. That aside, it is normal for diplomats to complain about other countries’ policies and sometimes take exception to the statements made by political leaders,” he told Dawn.

In a thread on X (formerly Twitter), George Mason University associate professor Ahsan I. Butt also notes that the cipher “does not suggest the US was pushing for regime change, only that it would be happy/happier when it happened. There is a significant difference between those positions.”

In addition, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, also tweeted: “How does a US diplomat telling a Pakistani diplomat that my government does not like your prime minister & relations might improve once he goes, constitute ‘pressure to remove’ him? [And] what is the threat?”

Even Michael Kugelman, the Wilson Centre’s outspoken Pakistan scholar, noted that the document “merely proves what’s already been reported: The US said ties with Pakistan would improve if Khan lost power”.

This opinion, however, is not shared by Mr Khan’s supporters, who insist that Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan’s own endnote in the purported cipher — where he expresses concern over the language used by US official Donald Lu and suggests a demarche to the US charge d’affaires in Islamabad — proves that a conspiracy did indeed exist.

This view has also found favour among those disillusioned with the US foreign policy, and many examples of Washington’s meddling in the affairs of other countries. Nations in South and Central America, as well as in the Middle East, have been cited as precedents for such suspicions.

Timeline of events

As for the PTI’s claim that Washington orchestrated the last year’s no-confidence vote that ousted Imran Khan, Mr Bhutto-Zardari told Dawn: “On Jan 5, 2022, we discussed the long march and the vote of no confidence at our central executive committee. I announced the planned vote at my long march (held between Feb 25 and Mar 7), and on March 8 we moved the no-confidence motion.”

He said the plan to table the no-trust vote had already been made public and was discussed in the Pakistani media long before Donald Lu met Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan. “So, it could not have been a conspiracy, as it was already public knowledge,” he added.

Asked if the leaked cable could influence voters in the forthcoming elections, the outgoing foreign minister said: “Those who trust this narrative will vote for it. Those who do not, they will not.”

The leaked document, he said, could give “the PTI narrative a second wind before it dies down again”.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2023

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