'It was the most dangerous nuclear situation'

American journalist Seymour Hersh's autobiography reveals important details of India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir

Knopf, the prestigious publishing house of New York, recently released a book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Seymour M. Hersh titled Reporter: A Memoir. Mr. Hersh made his name for his meticulous investigative work on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in March 1968.

Missing India link

His book covers nearly the whole of his professional life, but for some reason omits an episode directly related to India. Mr. Hersh, in his book on Henry Kissinger,The Price of Power, alleged that there was a mole in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet in the person of Morarji Desai who, he claimed, was paid $20,000 per year by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Not even Morarji Desai’s worst enemies gave the slightest credence to the allegation. He filed a multi-million dollar libel suit against Mr. Hersh. Both Mr. Kissinger and the CIA chief denied the story, but the jury ruled in favour of Mr. Hersh, on the ground that Morarji Desai did not provide sufficient evidence that Mr. Hersh had published the information with intent to do harm or with reckless disregard for the truth, either of which must be proved in a libel suit.

His memoir makes for most interesting reading on the way in which American governments have attempted to mislead American people and hide from them facts regarding secret operations they carried out. It comes through clearly that Mr. Hersh has an extremely high opinion about his talent at ferreting out information from official sources. He claims to have an infallible instinct to determine whether or not to trust the information given by someone. His guiding principle in his work, he says, has been: read before you write.

Kissinger's 'double talk'

Mr. Hersh is at his best when he talks about Mr. Kissinger, his bete noire.The Price of Power is about, as he calls it, Mr. Kissinger’s machinations, his lies, his lack of transparency, his double talk, and so on. In India, we should share Mr. Hersh’s strong dislike of Mr. Kissinger; he was behind the famous Nixon tilt against India during the emerging Bangladesh crisis in 1971 and sending a powerful navy task force led byUSS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal.

In Reporter, Mr. Hersh says that when he bought his house in Washington DC, he had two incentives. The Vice-President’s official residence was close by and the Indian Ambassador’s residence was just yards away. He must have known many Indian ambassadors and diplomats but the only one he mentions, that too in a footnote, is K.R. Narayanan, with whom he used to take long walks. He adds that he later visited Narayanan and stayed with him in his official residence, “the Viceroy’s House, a 200,000 square foot edifice built by Lord Mountbatten”!

Kashmir crisis

Mr. Hersh wrote a detailed article in the New Yorker about the India-Pakistan Kashmir crisis in 1990. Commodore Uday Bhaskar wrote an article on the 25th anniversary of the crisis in 2015. Mr. Hersh says in Reporter that he could now write about that crisis which he could not, at the time, namely, the CIA had impeccable intelligence from deep inside the Pakistan nuclear establishment. He writes that he was able, later, to convince the two senior American officials who were monitoring the crisis, Robert Gates and Dick Kerr, to speak to him on the record. According to Mr. Kerr, Pakistan feared Indian invasion; there had been reports of nuclear tensions in London’sSunday Times and the L.A. Times. The fear inside the Bush Administration was that India would cross the border and attack the Sindh province in force and that Pakistan would cut off the advance with a nuclear weapon. Mr. Kerr authorised Mr. Hersh to quote him as saying, “it was the most dangerous nuclear situation we have ever faced, it may be as close as we have come to a nuclear exchange. It was far more frightening than the Cuban missile crisis.” Mr. Gates, who mediated between the two adversaries to defuse the crisis, told Hersh: “The analogy we kept making was to the summer of 1914, when the Great War broke out. Pakistan and India seemed caught in a cycle they could not break out of. I was convinced that if a war started, it would be nuclear”. (All this was eight years before both countries went public about their nuclear weapons.)

The role played by Pakistan’s dictator, Yahya Khan, in midwifing Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and the secrecy surrounding it is well known. Mr. Hersh writes: “There was a very dark side to the secrecy: Khan was also a murderous despot whose army slaughtered anywhere from 500,000 to 3 million of his own people in suppressing a secessionist revolt in late March 1971 in what was then East Pakistan. The world recoiled over Khan’s brutality, but Nixon and Kissinger remained mute, for reasons not understood by State Department bureaucracy, to protect their lifeline to Chinese leadership. Kissinger would devote 8 pages in his memoirs to an unconvincing rationalization for his inaction in the face of Khan’s brutality.”

Mr. Hersh writes that in 2009, he wrote a ‘tough article’ dealing with America’s continuing effort to prevent a renewed India-Pakistan dispute from turning ugly, and nuclear. The story was checked with the State Department and White House, which had no comment on record but privately took issue. He was then told that if the story was published, it would create dangerous rioting in front of the American embassy in Islamabad and that unless the story was revised suitably, all foreign service dependents would be asked to leave Pakistan immediately. Mr. Hersh agreed not to publish; any reporter would, he adds.

Osama's killing

About Osama bin Laden’s assassination in 2011, Mr. Hersh writes that within days of the killing, he learnt from inside Pakistan that the there was a far more complicated reality, which involved the Obama administration working closely with ISI which had kept Osama imprisoned for many years. Mr. Hersh writes that much of what the administration had been telling reporters after the fact was not true; regrettably, he does not elaborate, his editor did not agree to publish his story. He did publish the story many months later in the London Review of Books, of which the main import was that the U.S. captured bin Laden with the generals of ISI and then betrayed them.

The book has several nuggets about West Asia. Here are two of them. Mr. Hersh was provided by a director of foreign intelligence service with a copy of a Republican Neocon plan for American dominance in the region. The document declared that the war to reshape the region had to begin with “the assault on Iraq. The fundamental reason for this was that the war will start making the US the hegemon of Middle East." Victory in Iraq would lead to an ultimatum to Damascus, the ‘defanging’ of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, PLO and other anti-Israeli groups. The then Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had even asked the American military command in Stuttgart to begin drawing up an operation plan for the invasion of Syria, which the general refused to do. The idea was: America’s enemies must understand that they were fighting for their life: Pax Americana was on its way, which implied their total annihilation. The plan was bizarre because Bashar al-Assad had responded to 9/11 by sharing with CIA hundreds of Syria’s most sensitive intelligence files. Mr. Assad told Mr. Hersh that he was stunned when the then U.S. President, George W. Bush, included Syria in the axis of evil along with Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Mr. Hersh is most sceptical about Israel’s claim that the target of its attack on Syria in September 2007 was a nuclear reactor under construction.

Mr. Hersh had serious questions about the Obama administration’s public certitude that a 2013 sarin attack near Damascus was the work of the Assad regime. He asserts that he had a copy of a highly secret report in which the U.S. intelligence community had determined that the radical jihadist opposition in Syria also had access to the nerve agent. Thus there were two suspects. Perhaps this is why Barack Obama did not carry out his threat of attacking Syria if it crossed his red line on chemical weapons.

All in all, this is a fascinating book about investigative journalism and ought to be compulsory reading for those in India who aspire to do genuine investigative reporting and not just sting operations. For Mr. Hersh, trust is everything in this business. He says that many a time, he did not use the information passed on to him so as not to compromise his sources. What is surprising, and most admirable, is the freedom of expression enjoyed in America. Not once has Mr. Hersh been dragged to the court or felt threatened for his reporting. Nor do people in sensitive positions decline to share their intelligence, often on record, with journalists whom they trust.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, a former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was Special Envoy for West Asia in the Manmohan Singh government

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 6:29:14 PM |

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