The cipher again

The appearance of the purported cipher text sheds a poor light on our security

About a year and a half after Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed from office, The Intercept magazine of the USA has printed the cipher that Mr Khan has claimed showed he was removed due to a conspiracy involving the USA and the opposition. The purported text shows US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu as telling the Pakistani Ambassador that Mr Khan’ visit to Moscow on the day Russia invaded Ukraine had been noted but ‘all would be forgiven’ if Mr Khan was removed through the no-confidence motion. There has been a lot of controversy about this cipher, as it was allegedly discussed by  Mr Khan with Cabinet colleagues (who have since left the PTI) and his Principal SectretaryAzam Khan, who has since turned approver against him. Mr Khan waved a copy of the cipher before being ousted to a public rally, but before being ousted.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the whole affair is where the magazine got a copy of the cipher. It said that it did so from a military source in Pakistan. This requires strict accounting, because a cipher is supposed to be a very secret document, not a flier that can be handed out to any casual visitor. Foreign Office denials are not going to be enough. An investigation is required not just to assign blame, but also to recommend procedures preventing a recurrence. After all, Pakistan stands revealed before the world as a country that cannot be trusted,  because there will be no knowing when or where cipher reports of conversations with its diplomats may appear in the media. The waving of the cipher represented the first time such use was ever made of a secret document by a Prime Minister. A separate issue has also  developed, that of where the waved document has gone. Mr Khan airly says that he has ‘lost it.’ Perhaps he need be told that while sufficient explanationfor cricket-boot laces, it will not wash for diplomatic ciphers.

Apart from the issue of criminal liability under the Official Secrets Act, there is the question of timing. The appearance of this report coincides with Mr Khan beginning a jail sentence for asset concealment, and with the end of the government consequent upon the dissolution of the National Assembly. Mr Khan has deep roots within the expatriate community, and personal contacts abroad. It is within the realm of possibility that he might be using them.

The Editorial Department of Pakistan Today can be contacted at: [email protected].


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