Cipher Strikes Again

Cipher Strikes Again
Just when Imran Khan thought his US conspiracy mantra was dead and buried, the cipher saga has boomeranged on him with a vengeance. Last year he held the hilt of this dagger – today, he is forced to curl his hands around the blade.

The confessions of the former prime minister’s principal secretary Azam Khan are the latest in a series of damning disclosures that have confirmed how Khan and his core teamsters conjured up an alleged American conspiracy to explain the ouster of his government. Nearly 16 months after the PTI chairman waved a piece of paper at a rally and proclaimed the existence of a cipher as evidence of the Americans out to get him, the fog is finally lifting on the matter and revealing some truths that shine a very unflattering light on all those who birthed and fanned this travesty.

Here are ten key points to note:

1. There are three central characters in this sorry saga: Imran Khan, Azam Khan and Shah Mehmood Qureshi. Then there is a cast of supporting characters, including Fawad Chaudhry, Shireen Mazari and a group of PTI mouthpieces, most of whom sat on one particular channel and spewed all those toxic lies that made up the cipher travesty. Finally, there are the extras that got contaminated from the fallout of the saga because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Together, this motley crew inflicted upon a hapless electorate a conjuring so damaging and so noxious that the country is still struggling to recover from it.
Even before a discrepancy was noticed, it was also observed by those in the know that the circulation of the minutes was being unduly delayed

2. Evidence that confirms how Imran Khan and his teamsters stitched together this Big Lie is contained in the following:
(a) Three meetings of the National Security Committee (two while PTI was in power and the third during the PDM government tenure),
(b) Leaked audio of the central characters discussing how to ‘play up’ the cipher as a US conspiracy,
(c) Confessional statement of Azam Khan that validates the evidence presented in points (a) and (b).

READ MORE: Imran Khan Planned On Using US Cipher For Political Motives Against VONC

3. In the first NSC meeting, Imran harped on the cipher and argued that this presented solid proof that the US was engineering his ouster through the upcoming vote of no confidence. The military high command had done its homework, though frankly speaking, not much work was needed to debunk this silly PTI narrative. However, in deference to the office that Khan occupied, the high command agreed that the language used by the US diplomat, as reported in the cipher by the then Pakistan ambassador to the US (and present foreign secretary) Asad Majeed, was inappropriate. The high command also agreed – some say reluctantly – that this amounted to ‘interference’ in the country’s domestic affairs. A press release was duly issued after the meeting.

4. But then a curious thing - which remains largely unreported - happened. The minutes of the first NSC meeting, it was noticed, did not accurately reflect what had actually transpired in the meeting that discussed the cipher controversy. In fact, even before this discrepancy was noticed, it was also observed by those in the know that the circulation of the minutes was being unduly delayed. A message was conveyed. The minutes were then finally sent to all concerned. That’s when some very relevant participants of the first NSC meeting pointed out that the minutes – as they were drafted – reflected a sense of the meeting that was not accurate. The minutes portrayed a picture that all the participants had fully agreed with the narrative that the cipher was, in fact, reflective of a regime-change conspiracy.
When Imran Khan waved the alleged cipher in the Islamabad rally, many officials in the ministry were aghast.

5. This is when some people communicated to the people responsible for the minutes that inaccuracies must be removed from the minutes. No prizes for guessing who is responsible for such minutes. No prizes also for guessing correctly who would have benefited from these inaccurate minutes of that crucial meeting. If in doubt, please see point (2-b) above. As a result of this very direct message to the concerned, the minutes were then re-drafted to reflect the actual proceedings of the first NSC meeting.

6. An equally messy situation was developing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) simultaneously. When Imran Khan waved the alleged cipher in the Islamabad rally, many officials in the ministry were aghast. Ciphers are an integral part of diplomacy the world over. Secrecy is embedded in their protocol. There is logic behind this. Governments want their ambassadors to feel secure enough to write accurate reports and analyses from their capitals in order for the decision-makers to have the most reliable and accurate information. If the ambassadors feel they have to self-censor their reports, or gloss over unpleasant facts, or even skew their reports towards what they believe their superiors would like to hear, then that undermines the purpose of diplomacy. It is the knowledge that their ciphers will never be made public that ensures our envoys report as honestly and professionally as they can. This red line has never been crossed.

READ MORE: Imran Khan And His Whataboutery

7. Until Imran Khan crossed it. He did not make the cipher public, but he did the next worst thing – he used it for selfish political motives. And then he took the original copy of the cipher, and misplaced it. Or at least that’s what he claims. In all this – from the time that he learnt about the existence of the cipher till the time that he kept milking it for whatever it was worth – he was being advised by his foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and principal secretary Azam Khan. The role played by Qureshi has especially come under criticism by the ministry he headed. As a second-time foreign minister, and as an experienced politician well acquainted with statecraft, Qureshi should have been the last person to indulge in such recklessness. There is no way he did not know the repercussions of conjuring up this conspiracy and the impact it would have on Pakistan’s diplomacy, foreign relations and credibility on the international stage. Yet he barreled ahead and kept pushing the Big Lie even as his government dug a deeper and deeper hole for itself.

READ MORE: How Imran Khan’s Imaginary Tale Of ‘American Conspiracy’ Harmed Pakistan’s Interests

8. Even more unfortunate, Qureshi, through his recklessness and deviant politicking, dragged innocent officials from MoFA into the controversy. One such official was reprimanded in the ensuing months when his role became apparent during the conversation over the cipher that was caught on tape. The official – a thorough professional – had to pay the price for the actions of his boss. It was unfair on him.
Mazari and her party’s mouthpieces and clownish propagandists on one particular news channel endangered the lives of many

9. Among the worst offenders outside the core conspiracy-mongers was information minister Fawad Chaudhry and human rights minister Shireen Mazari. Both became drumbeaters for this travesty even when both knew well the entire narrative was based on a Big Lie. It was bunkum. Mazari and her party’s mouthpieces and clownish propagandists on one particular news channel endangered the lives of many by making outlandish claims that all those who met US diplomats as part of their official duties were, in fact, part of the conspiracy.

10. The stage is now set for the cipher issue to be legally weaponised. All those involved in making and dissemination of the Big Lie need to be held accountable for defrauding the people of Pakistan and endangering the vital interests of the state of Pakistan. The sorry saga of the cipher will claim more victims in the coming days.

The writer is a political commentator.