I was the one who leaked the documents, former Swedish police chief Sten Lindström says in online interview
Sten Lindström, the former head of the Swedish police who led the investigations into the Bofors-India howitzer deal, has disclosed that he was the one who fed the journalistic investigation that was published on the pages of The Hindu in 1988-89. The identity of the source has been a detail that The Hindu has steadfastly held on to for a quarter century. The “tell-all” interview that Mr. Lindström has now given Chitra Subramaniam-Duella, who was one of the journalists who had worked on the story while with The Hindu, from Europe, was published online on April 24 in ‘The Hoot.'
The latest development in the Bofors scandal comes a quarter century after Swedish state radio got it all going on April 16, 1987.
The one part of Mr. Lindström's interview that is likely to generate political heat is his comment on Rajiv Gandhi and Ottavio Quattrocchi, the Italian businessman who is accused of being a middleman in the deal: “There was no evidence that [Rajiv Gandhi] had received any bribe. But he watched the massive cover-up in India and Sweden and did nothing. Many Indian institutions were tarred, innocent people were punished while the guilty got away. The evidence against Ottavio Quattrocchi was conclusive. Through a front company called A.E. Services, bribes paid by Bofors landed in Quattrocchi's account which he subsequently cleaned out because India said there was no evidence linking him to the Bofors deal. Nobody in Sweden or Switzerland was allowed to interrogate him.”
Mr. Lindström is described in the interview as the one who leaked some 350 documents, which included payment instructions to banks, contracts, handwritten notes, minutes of meetings and Bofors Managing Director Martin Ardbo's diary that carried a lot of sensitive information.
Many of the documents, painstakingly verified and studied by The Hindu, were printed in facsimile form on its pages in 1988-1989.
Asked by The Hindu for his comments on the interview, N. Ram, who led the journalistic investigation behind the coverage of l'affaire Bofors in the newspaper at the time and who later became its Editor-in-Chief, said: “I'm old-fashioned enough to be very protective of highly sensitive, privileged sources. I'm not going to confirm or deny who the source was. What I can confirm is that I met the source on more than one occasion, along with Chitra Subramaniam, and also was in touch [with the source] on the phone.”
In ‘The Hoot' interview Mr. Lindström recalls the occasion when Mr. Ram went to his office and he handed over the documents, proceeding to say that The Hindu's role was that of a “medium of communication.” He speaks also of a sense of disappointment over the process as, “they published the documents as and when they wanted without any respect for the risks other people were taking to get the facts out.”
The former police chief added: “The most explosive documents that involved the political payments were Ardbo's notes and diary. The Hindu published them several months after they had them. In the meantime, there was a serious difficulty... There were consequences for me and my family. The Hindu seemed unconcerned.”
Mr. Ram, who stepped down as The Hindu's Editor-in-Chief earlier this year, had this to say on these points: “The privileged source was not willing to give the entire documentation in possession to us. So it was a process of negotiating over a period of about one and a half years with the source. The source was, for whatever reason, not willing to part with the document cache in one go, and would only give it in phased-out instalments over this long period.”
Mr. Ram added: “There was no question of the newspaper publishing the documents and other information arbitrarily, as and when we pleased. We were not fools to hold back material without due cause and incur the risk of letting others run away with our story! In a story with such big stakes, involving a great newspaper's credibility and people's reputations, there was a need for due diligence, for devil's advocacy, for making connections and drawing inferences, for being fair and just. We needed to translate — accurately — some of the material from Swedish. As for the Ardbo diary — which the police had seized and returned to him, preserving only photocopies — it presented a real challenge. Some of the handwritten diary entries made explosive suggestions but they were semi-coded, using initials and sometimes misspelling key names.”
Possibly for the first time, Mr. Lindström reveals how the Indian angle came into focus: “It was an accident. We were conducting several search-and-seize operations in the premises of Bofors and their executives. I have some experience in this area, so I asked my team to take everything they could find. In the pile were one set of documents to Swiss banks with instructions that the name of the recipient should be blocked out. An accountant doing his job asked why anonymity was necessary since the payments were legal. Bofors was unable to explain and then we found more and more documents leading to India.”
Mr. Ram said: “There were various inputs that were key to our investigation. For example, there was specific information made available through Malini Parthasarathy by a member of the JPC [the Joint Parliamentary Committee that went into the Bofors affair] that enabled the investigation to make a connection and draw a crucial inference from the documentation. On the cover-up aspect, we learnt a lot from confidential meetings I had, at their request, with Defence Minister K.C. Pant and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.”
In the interview, Mr. Lindström aired his thoughts on the media's role in such contexts. He said: “There needs to be a free and fair discussion in the media about itself. The media is the watchdog of our society – but who is watching the media? Most whistle-blowers around the world leak information to the media because they feel they owe it to their country, their job or the position they are elected to. Genuine whistle-blowers also expect the media to be responsible and according to me this means that the media has to understand the motives of whistle-blowers. Not everyone is driven by the same motive. This is where investigative journalism comes in. Every role has its limits. I cannot become a journalist, a journalist cannot become a judge and a judge cannot become a politician. Who controls the media, what are their interests? What happens if a reporter is also part of the management? Do journalistic ethics compete with business and political interests of the media organisation? Can an ombudsman be the answer? If not, let us all work together globally to find a solution we all respect and understand.”
Speaking on his chosen role as whistle-blower in the affair, Mr. Lindström does say this: “My only option was to leak the documents to someone we could trust.” He adds: “The role of the whistle-blower is a part of democracy. When all official channels are clogged, you have to take a decision. We have a culture here that it is okay to blow the whistle. I have met other whistle-blowers. I knew what I was doing when I leaked the documents to you. I could not count on my government or Bofors or the government of India to get to the bottom of this.”
Then, in a cathartic finale, Mr. Lindström says: “False closures of corruption bleed the system. Every day has to matter. When something like the scale and violence of Bofors happens, you begin to question your own faith as a professional and a human being. When you start losing faith, you begin to lose hope. When hope is lost, everything is lost. We cannot afford to let that happen. Maybe we will get nowhere, but silence cannot be the answer.”