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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Because walls have ears

Even before WikiLeaks,US diplomatic secrets have regularly dribbled out.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
March 28, 2011 1:27:42 am

In the recent past,WikiLeaks has virtually changed the world of diplomacy by making public millions of top-secret cables of the United States sent to the state department in Washington by its embassies across the world. That this has also made Julian Assange,Wikileaks’ editor-in-chief,the bete noire of several governments is a different matter. The huge excitement,including some high-octane controversies and heated parliamentary debates,caused by the current avalanche of India-related classified telegrams of the US embassy in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri is no surprise.

However,my purpose here is not to discuss the mini-tsunami in this country touched off by the detailed telegram about the 2008 cash-for-votes scandal. Nor is it to detract in any way from the grandeur of the service WikiLeaks is rendering. It is only to make a limited point: even in an age when few could even dream of today’s cutting-edge cyber technology,there were regular leakages of the most closely guarded American secrets. More often than not,dissidents within the administration were the source of these. The most celebrated case was that of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War during the Nixon years,for which Daniel Ellsberg had to pay a heavy price. No wonder he remains Assange’s hero. Enterprising journalists and scholars also usually dig up a great many secrets. Recall Jack Anderson’s impressive ability,during the 1971 Bangladesh war,to scoop every machination of the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger duo to “tilt” on the side that was morally in the wrong and militarily doomed to defeat. Today,no classified American document seems beyond Bob Woodward’s reach.

Interestingly,the US establishment’s commendable practice to regularly declassify secret documents (something that is anathema to Indian governments) is also useful. But given the humungous number of declassified documents every year,the contents of many of them seldom find their way into print or the ether. During frequent visits and a year-long stay in the US over the last 30 years I have read a few thousand such files,mostly with a bearing on South Asia,in the US national archives and presidential libraries. Only a few of them were of immediate professional use. The others had to be filed away in memory. None of the secrets they reveal is of the same voltage as WikiLeaks’ disclosures. Even so,this seems an appropriate time to recall and record some of them.

Fat files in the LBJ Library in Austin,Texas,on Indira Gandhi’s first visit to Washington as prime minister in 1966 are filled with all secret telegrams from the US embassy in Delhi and even “eyes only” briefs for President Lyndon Johnson written by his advisers. But these are now dated. However,a somewhat earlier document with the highest classification,dated December 1964,is a gem. It records the conversation between Homi Bhabha,the legendary founder-chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission,and Spurgeon Keeney,scientific adviser to the then US president. Bhabha is quoted as having said,among other things,that while making a detailed presentation to the Indian cabinet in the immediate aftermath of China’s first nuclear test,he suddenly realised that most ministers “seemed not to understand what I was talking about”.

No less enlightening and entertaining is a sheaf of telegrams,marked confidential,that the then US ambassador in Delhi,George Allen,had sent to Washington in the early ’50s,concerning the visit to the US of Frank Moraes,then editor of The Times of India and later editor-in-chief of The Indian Express. One of these recounts the conversation Moraes had with prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru after returning home: “Moraes reported to the prime minister that every single of his interlocutors in America spent the bulk of the time in complaining that Krishna Menon (who had by then ceased to be high commissioner in London but hadn’t yet become minister without portfolio,and therefore had to be content with the leadership of the Indian delegation to the UN General Assembly) was doing incalculable damage to Indo-US relations because of his anti-American vituperations”.

“At one stage,” adds the telegram,“Moraes noted that the prime minister’s face was getting redder and redder,so he asked,‘Sir,should I stop?’ ‘No,no,tell me everything. Who said what?’ replied Nehru. At the end the prime minister thanked Moraes but made no comment.”

Before leaving for Washington,Moraes had also spoken to Morarji Desai,then chief minister of the composite state of Bombay,as it was then called. According to the telegram,Desai had said to the editor to “tell the Americans that I am the man of the future”.

Another cable that deserves mentioning is one I read many,many years ago. It is dated 1961 and emanated from the US consul-general in Madras (as it was then called). This diplomat,whose name I forget,reported that he had gone to see G. Kasturi,then editor of The Hindu,to check on rumours that Vijayalakshmi Pandit would be vice-president when S. Radhakrishnan moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan. He quotes Kasturi as having replied that this would never happen. The diplomat asked why. The reply,as quoted in the cable: “Because even Nehru cannot carry nepotism that far.”

Let me wind up this account with something that,far from being amusing,is deeply distressing. In 2005,the US state department published a volume called South Asia Crisis,1971. A document in it records a conversation between Nixon and Kissinger in the Oval Office on November 5,1971,while waiting for the Indian prime minister’s arrival for a second meeting. It is shocking beyond words. For after remarking: “The Indians are bastards. They are starting a war there … East Pakistan is no longer the issue,” Kissinger gloated: “We clobbered the old witch (at previous day’s meeting).” Not content with this,he also used about Indira Gandhi another expletive rhyming with witch that no gentleman ever employs for any lady,leave alone a foreign head of government on an official visit.

An American dignitary I remonstrated with for this unhesitatingly said: “Henry’s manners were inexcusable,but you should give us credit that we do not distort or fudge the record.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political analyst

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