Memo scandal: Does Western press never publish unverified claims?
By Yahya Hussainy
One of the key assumptions that triggered an investigation into the memo affair by the ISI was that London’s Financial Times would not have published Mansoor Ijaz’s claims about authoring and delivering a memo to US Admiral Mullen at the behest of “a senior diplomat” without evidence.
This assumption has long-term implications for Pakistan as the western media engages in a new round of speculation about Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, particularly the house in Abbottabad that has just recently been demolished.
In his statement before the memo commission, former ISI DG Lt General (r) Ahmed Shuja Pasha reiterated what he told the Supreme Court in his affidavit in January. He arranged a meeting with Mansoor Ijaz on the latter’s terms to find out details of the matter after reading his article revealing the existence of the memo.
The op-ed article titled ‘Time to rein in Pakistan’s jihadist spies’ was published in the Financial Times on October 10, 2011. The spy chief reached the conclusion that “no one could write such a piece unless he had some evidence to support his assertions”.
During its hearings on the memo case, the Supreme Court had also made similar observations. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry had wondered out loud how a newspaper of the stature of Financial Times could publish a claim unless there was some truth in it.
Pakistani journalists who originally pursued the memo matter also speculated that the mere publication of Mansoor Ijaz’s op-ed in FT showed that there could be no doubt about the substance of his claim.
During cross-questioning before the commission, General Pasha even said that he did not look into the antecedents of Mansoor Ijaz because he was only concerned with what he had written.
The belief that newspapers such as the FT do not publish assertions for which they have no evidence would lead to the conclusion that all information and revelations published in op-ed articles in these newspapers is primarily verified and substantive.
The institution such an assumption would hurt the most is perhaps Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) because more articles are published about it in Western newspapers than have been published about the veracity of the memo.
Ironically, the same newspaper (Financial Times) where Mansoor Ijaz originally published his claim about the memo also published an op-ed article by him on May 3, 2011, titled ‘Security chiefs must end Pakistan’s duplicity’.
In that article, Mansoor Ijaz categorically claimed that the ISI had been complicit in “harbouring a mass murderer”. If after reading the article published on October 10, the ISI DG reached the conclusion that “no one could write such a piece so blatantly unless he had some evidence to support his assertions”, what did he think when the May 3 piece was published? Mansoor Ijaz’s assertions in the May 3 article in Financial Times were particularly nefarious. We do not know if he has BlackBerry messages or communications logs to prove his claims but the notion that an article by him in the Financial Times must surely be backed by evidence should have led to an investigation into those claims as well. In that article, Mansoor Ijaz categorically claimed that the ISI’s denials about knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad were not plausible.
He wrote, “The compound’s location near an elite Pakistani military academy and among the homes of high-ranking Pakistani military retirees raises hard questions about Pakistan’s role in harbouring the al Qaeda leader in plain sight while its intelligence services and military chiefs nursed on the American taxpayer’s wallet. It is unclear who built the compound, or owned the land, or even who brought groceries and supplies – and whether any of this was known to Pakistan’s spy services.” “It seems implausible that Inter-Services Intelligence, the premier Pakistani spy agency, knew nothing about where bin Laden was,” Mansoor Ijaz continued. “Indeed, it seems much more likely that elements within the agency knew exactly where he was, and kept bin Laden within that compound on just the terms it wanted.”
The most accusative passage in the May 3 article stated, “In all of this, Pakistan has almost certainly acted as a knowing babysitter, watching over the terror master so he would do no further harm – as long as the babysitting fees were sufficient and recurring. Washington, in its infinite naiveties, simply did not know who exactly was being babysat. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil; it was the perfect arrangement between a Pollyannish parent and its seditious babysitter.” Just as Mansoor Ijaz claims that he had been involved in sending the memo to Admiral Mullen for ‘plausible deniability’, he also suggested that there was a complex scheme of plausible deniability by ISI in the bin Laden affair.
He wrote in his FT article in May, “The result of Islamabad’s nefarious brinkmanship will only now become clear. In recent years it has been entangled in a web of lies and deceit that even it could not untangle as the final chapter of bin Laden’s life unfolded.”
The author of the memo posited the theory that “with drone attacks along the Waziristan border areas complicating Pakistan’s internal politics, bin Laden was moved to an urban area, thereby reducing the need for larger numbers of attacks that encroached on Pakistani sovereignty. Keeping the rising agitation factor on its streets under control was a key Pakistani objective. The ISI’s watchful eye on bin Laden also would have had the advantage of creating plausible deniability with both the military and civilian wings of government, as we are now seeing”.
The article continued to say that Pakistan’s civilian leaders “only get to know what the ISI wants them to know. It has been that way since the country was founded. The decade-long rule of General Pervez Musharraf, who doubled as army chief and president, ushered in the era of ‘blind eye’ firewalls to ISI activities that again gave a head of state in an army uniform plausible deniability”.
According to Mansoor Ijaz, “The genius of this approach was that political leaders could rest assured that whatever the ISI was doing was probably in the best strategic interests of the country, but without being informed about details that could easily destabilise or sour relations with key allies. Gen Musharraf used such firewalls to great strategic advantage when, for example, he placed Abdul Qadeer Khan under house arrest after ‘learning’ of his clandestine nuclear activities in 2004 in return for even more American aid to fuel his military alliance with the Bush administration in the years after the September 11 attacks.”
It is important to note that many reports in Western media that are critical of Pakistan and its state institutions are routinely ignored and even rubbished here as imaginary or lacking proof. But the ISI and the pro-Mansoor Ijaz section of the Pakistani media did not choose that approach when confronted with an op-ed article by Mansoor Ijaz implicating civilian officials in sending the memo. The ISI chief decided to seek out Mansoor Ijaz and see the evidence on which he might have based his assertion.
Similarly, the media hawks on the memo issue gave no weight to the many articles in the Western media that point towards Ijaz as an unreliable attention seeker. The Washington Post called Mansoor Ijaz “unreliable” and “a quixotic accuser” who “seems like a character in a fanciful spy novel of his own design”.
CNN published a long list of previous false claims made by Mansoor Ijaz, for which he wrongly claimed to possess evidence or data. If the concept that “no one could write such a piece unless he had some evidence to support his assertions” was applied to Mansoor Ijaz’s October 10 article, why is it not applicable to his May 3 op-ed? And why should the now fast evaporating memo hawks seeking retribution against civilians implicated in the memo affair ignore all the articles in the international media about the memo’s self-confessed American author?
Surely, all the articles pointing out Mansoor Ijaz’s inconsistencies, supposedly false claims and financial difficulties could also not be written without some evidence just as his articles about the ISI must also have been backed by some evidence if one assumes nothing erroneous or unsubstantiated is ever published in the western press. One wonders if the Supreme Court and the memo commission will also take note of all those articles.