I was working for Bombay [Dear MNS, please note: It was Bombay then, and anyway I am no Karan Johar] tabloid Mid-Day when my editor called me to his workspace and told me of Dr Buddhikota Subbarao. He was jailed as a spy, my editor told me while asking me to interview the man, and has been behind bars for over five years.
I went to Subbarao’s Vashi home, early in the morning two days after his release, with a vague idea of the kind of person I’d encounter – a mental image derived from considerable immersion in the works of John le Carre and others.
I expected security, paranoia and, worst case, having to tell my editor I couldn’t get the interview. What I found was a ‘row house’ like any other on that street. There were no guards, no dogs or other obstacles to journalistic endeavor – so I knocked on the door, and a roly-poly man in lungi, frayed shirt and horn-rim spectacles answered my knock.
Subbarao ushered me in, sat me down, brought me a cup of tea and biscuits [both replenished in course of a chat that lasted over an hour], and with no visible hesitation, spoke about his experiences.
That interview, published [with the kind of ‘Exclusive: First ever…’ tag that gave a then newbie journalist a huge high] in a Sunday edition of Mid-Day back in 1991, doesn’t seem to have an online presence – but this story is consonant with the facts as he recounted them then. [Also read this sequel, by Manu Joseph in Outlook nearly a decade later].
Among other things, that encounter forced me to rethink the readiness to accept the “official” view of matters of national security. [And that rethink, in turn, led to the story I filed for Sunday Observer when the national press was all agog over the “ISRO spy scandal” of 1994 – a story that materialized because I went to Thiruvananthapuram unwilling to blindly accept the “official” story [a comment piece I did for Rediff four years later, when the courts ruled on the case].
Back to Subbarao: the jinx on the family continues. There has still been no official resolution of his spy case. And now, a scary sequel: Open magazine reports the case of Subbarao’s son Vikram, now facing the prospect of a 30-year jail term for “threatening” George Bush.
Back when he was in the final leg of his campaign for the White House, Barack Obama put forward as one of the differentiators between his candidacy and that of Senator John McCain the fact that he alone was talking of the perils of Pakistan.
There was the statement that he would follow al Qaeda to the gates of hell. Then the even more famous statement that the Bush administration had been lavishing money on Islamabad, with no accountability, no strings attached — and that Pakistan was using that money to prepare for war with India.
The Bush administration added to the fun. Its officials found massive misuse of US funds; they found too that much of aid meant for anti-terrorism efforts were being diverted towards beefing up Islamabad’s anti-India arsenal. So what did the Bushies do? They went ah fuck it, why give Islamabad the trouble of double-entry bookkeeping — let’s just make the damn thing official and divert ‘anti-terror’ funds sanctioned by Congress to Islamabad’s real goal.
Obama, of course, wasn’t having any of this:
So Obama the candidate defined the problem: Pakistan is misusing US aid. Obama the President has now hit on the perfect solution: give more aid. [There is a huge difference, as Obama-ites will point out: Bush was just giving money; the Obama administration is pursuing an Af-Pak strategy. Not the same thing at all.]
Thus, somewhere in the corridors of the Capitol, a bill authored by Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar is wending its way through the process, and will sooner, not later, reach the desk of President Barack Obama for his signature.
The bill, which provides for US aid to Pakistan to the tune of $1.5 billion each year for five years, was the brainchild of then Senator, now Vice President, Joe Biden acting in tandem with Lugar — for which a grateful Pakistan named the two lawmakers for the civilian award Hilal-i-Pakistan [Kerry missed out at the time because he was junior to Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; he is now its chair, so he can look forward to getting his gong soon].
While this bill was being prepared in the House and Senate committees, Congressman Howard Berman among others warned of the danger of handing over large sums of money without attaching conditions relating to how it could be spent — concerns that were bulldozed out of the way by Kerry and Lugar, with the Obama White House throwing its clout behind the two Senators and getting Berman to remove the bulk of the conditions he had sought to impose in the House version of the bill.
An administration has changed, but nothing much else has. Pervez Musharraf routinely bluffed the US by pointing at Pakistan’s imminent economic collapse and arguing that if the US did not pony up, Islamabad would not be able to prosecute the war on terror. Musharraf is gone, Mr Ten Percent Zardari [who rewards jokes at his expense with a 14 year prison sentence] is in power, but the tactic remains the same: through a spate of opeds, Zardari repeatedly argues that (a) Pakistan is the greatest victim of terrorism; (b) The terrorists were actually created by the West, read US, as part of its anti-Soviet policy and (c) It is therefore up to the West to now open its purse strings and come to the aid of the party [Opeds in the New York Times, the Washington Post, WashPost again, and the Wall Street Journal, as exemplars].
What to say? Actually, Bush said it best, in a speech in Nashville in 2002 that has since made it to the list of top of Dubya’s pops:
“There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.”
Here, watch — the thing is best savored direct from the horse’s mouth:
Turns out, you can get fooled again. And again. Question though is, is ‘fooled’ the right word to use when successive administrations know exactly what is happening, but chose to play blind? Bush’s officials spoke of massive misuse of
funds, but the Bush administration went ahead and provided more funds. Obama spoke of misuse of funds, but is going ahead to provide more funds.
Which is fine — your money, your idiocy [yeah, at some point India will pay a price for all this, but we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it]. Musharraf last week admitted to misuse of US funds [before he admitted that he had never made that admission].
Shortly before Musharraf spun like a top, the New York Times reported that Islamabad had made illegal modifications to the Harpoon missile to expand its anti-India offensive capability.
The administration’s response, and that of the current and future Hilal-i-Pakistans [or is that Hilals-i-Pakistan] has been hilarious in the extreme.
Aides to Kerry and Lugar told my friend and colleague Aziz Haniffa that the two Senators were “studying the report” relating to the Harpoon modification and “waiting for the investigation to be completed”. But, added the aides, they did not expect that the revelations would prompt any changes in the Kerry-Lugar aid bill.
Err — so you are ‘studying’ it why?
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly for his part redefined the parameters of ‘disingenuous’. “We’ve seen these reports in The New York Times,” he said. “We take the possibility of any potential of any violations of obligations entered into pursuant to the Arms Control Act — we take these allegations very seriously.”
Oh good. And you did what? “We have engaged the government of Pakistan at the highest levels. We recently negotiated an agreement in principle to establish mutually agreed inspections to address possible modifications to any arms that we’ve transferred, and we’ve notified Congress of potential violations of obligations entered in pursuant to the Arms Control Act to ensure that key leaders are provided information on US efforts to address them.”
Eh? The Arms Control Act mandates that you cannot change or modify in any way arms that have been provided by, or purchased from, the US. Penalties include the immediate stoppage of all further military aid to the concerned nation. The Harpoon modification is a fact verified not by the NYT but by the government itself. So why is that not game over?
Kelly was asked about the Musharraf statement. His response was a classic: “Musharraf is a private citizen,” the State Department mouthpiece said, in a supreme WTF moment. Really? Kelly likely doesn’t read the reports the Congressional Research Service puts out. Like this one — on Pakistan’s arms purchases during the tenure of Pinocchio Pervez.
One face of AQ Khan
In what is rapidly becoming the book of revelations, the latest is the Simon Henderson article in the Sunday Times yesterday. The media in India has been going nuts-r-us over the ‘revelation’ that AQ Khan’s nuclear blackmarket was overseen by Pakistan’s government and military establishment. As revelations go, this one doesn’t go a long way. Despite devoting extensive space in his self-serving memoir, In The Line of Fire, to advancing the claim that Khan was operating on his own and that the state apparatus was not complicit, no one believed Musharraf then.
India at the time went ‘I told you so’ and pointed out to the US that it had been warning of Khan’s activities and Islamabad’s complicity for years now. The Bush administration’s response was tut, tut, Khan’s been a naughty boy, but chill on Pakistan, it is our ‘foremost ally’ in the war on terror, didn’t you know?
For me, the real revelation in the Henderson article is not the Khan letter
itself, but the story of attempts to suppress it [Incidentally, Henderson has much to say of the West’s attempts to suppress the letter; I wish he’d tell us why it’s taken him two years to read a four page letter and tell its story]. Extended clip:
It could be a scene from a film. On a winter’s evening, around 8pm, in a quiet suburban street in Amsterdam, a group of cars draw up. Agents of the Dutch intelligence service, the AIVD, accompanied by uniformed police, ring the bell and knock on the door of one of the houses. The occupants, an elderly couple and their unmarried daughter, are slow to come to the door. The bell-ringing becomes more insistent, the knocks sharper. When the door opens, the agents request entry but are clearly not going to take no for an answer.
The year was 2004. The raid went unreported but was part of the worldwide sweep against associates of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist and “father of the Islamic bomb”, who had just been accused of selling nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea. The house belonged to one of his brothers, a retired Pakistani International Airlines manager, who lived there with his wife and daughter. The two secret agents asked the daughter for a letter she had recently received from abroad. Upstairs in her bedroom, she pulled it from a drawer. It was unopened. The agents grabbed it and told her to put on a coat and come with them.
The daughter, Kausar Khan, was taken to the local police station, although, contrary to usual practice, she was neither signed in nor signed out. The Dutch agents wanted to know why she had not opened the letter and whether she knew what was in it. She didn’t; she had merely been asked to look after it. Inside the envelope was a copy of a letter that Pakistan did not want to reach the West. The feared Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had found the letter when they searched Dr AQ Khan’s home in Islamabad. He had also passed a copy on to his daughter Dina to take to her home in London, as rumours of Khan’s “proliferation” — jargon for the dissemination of nuclear secrets — swept the world. The Pakistani ISI were furious. “Now you have got your daughter involved,” they reportedly said. “So far we have left your family alone, but don’t expect any leniency now.”
Dr Khan collapsed in sobs. Under pressure, he agreed to telephone Dina in London and ordered her to destroy the documents. He used three languages: Urdu, English and Dutch. It was code for her to obey his instructions. Dina dutifully destroyed the letter. That left the copy that was confiscated by the Dutch intelligence service in Amsterdam. I know there is at least one other copy: mine.
And later, the payoff:
It was not rocket science to work out a plausible explanation for the Dutch seizure. Bloggers will probably err on the side of more imaginative conspiracy theories, but the truth is probably simpler. After the September 11 attacks, the West in general, and the United States in particular, had to work with Pakistan to counter Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in neighbouring Afghanistan. That meant that they had to work with President Musharraf, even though he was no democrat. As part of the bargain, Pakistan’s nuclear sins also needed to be placed to one side.
In other words the US, which pays lip service to the ideal of nuclear non-proliferation, was fine with covering up a nuclear proliferation operation of potentially catastrophic consequences as long as its ‘war on terror’ was not affected.
So, nine years and unnumbered billions of dollars later, where are we on that war? Here. Here. And here.
In passing, a good book on the subject of the nuclear blackmarket and Pakistan’s official role in it is Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy, by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark.