Memo commission goes on wild goose chase

Syed Yahya HussainyDespite glaring contradictions and absurdities in the testimony of Mansoor Ijaz, the man who instigated the memo issue, the judicial commission of inquiry appointed by the Supreme Court continues to take him seriously. The international media has stopped even covering the memo issue and within the Pakistani media only an English language newspaper edited by a US-based friend of Mansoor Ijaz reports on him as if he were a serious witness.

Starting off with claims of delivering an unsigned memo under instructions of former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, the testimony of Mansoor Ijaz ended with claims of intelligence services from four countries – whom he is unwilling to name – confirming to him that there was a serious threat of a military coup in Pakistan after the May 2, 2011 US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. The commission did not ask the obvious question:

Why would intelligence agencies from four countries report to Mansoor Ijaz? What is he, M from James Bond movies?

The commission was created as a fact-finding body, not as a court trying anyone for a crime. It cannot, therefore, be content with allowing witnesses to make statements and be cross-examined by counsel of various petitioners who brought the case to the Supreme Court or respondents who were named in the original petition. It should get into ascertaining the facts itself. But so far Mansoor Ijaz, who is testifying from London because he lives at an unidentified address in Europe, has been allowed to get away with giving his family’s address in the United States (2236 Archer Road, Shawsville, Virginia 24073) as his address even though he has not lived there for years.

With characteristic flair and flamboyance, Mansoor Ijaz claimed that he had access to transcripts of conversations between President Zardari and General Kayani right after the bin Laden raid. He also had an email, once again from someone whom he cannot name, about the conversation between Pakistan’s Air Traffic Control and the US helicopters undertaking the raid in Abbottabad to get Osama bin Laden. He won’t tell us how he got these “documents” and the “documents” have no markings to indicate their origin or authorship. Now all we need is another petition before the Supreme Court and another commission to delve into the origin, authenticity and purpose of all the anonymous documents produced by Mansoor Ijaz.

The Washington Post not long ago described Mansoor Ijaz as the “Quixotic character in a spy novel that he had written himself.” His testimony proves that description as apt. Interestingly, the non-descript email address used by Mansoor Ijaz to send the draft of the memo to Husain Haqqani, by his own claim, was ussh007@gmail.com. Talk about wanting to be a spy, just like the movies. No wonder Haqqani did not take the email seriously or didn’t bother reading or replying to it.

During cross-examination, Mansoor Ijaz spoke about how ISI Director General Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha travelled to several countries, trying to secure support for a military coup. If he knew that from May and believed it, how does Ijaz square that with his willingness to trust Pasha in October with details of his May mission of delivering a memo on behalf of the civilians he wanted saved from the coup? General Pasha must also be regretting meeting Ijaz and giving him credence but that is another subject altogether.

Mansoor Ijaz makes a big deal of the fact that he has submitted his BlackBerry handsets and phone bills to the commission while Husain Haqqani has not. The commission’s head appears fascinated by this technical data. But the phone bills only confirm who called whom and at what time for what duration. How can this piece of ‘evidence’ shed any light on what was said during those telephone conversations?

The newspaper that still wants Ijaz’s testimony to somehow bring the elected government down claimed recently that the telephone bills submitted by Ijaz ‘confirmed’ that US General James Jones, who forwarded Ijaz’s memo and is the only former US official with whom Ijaz was directly in contact about his memo, lied when he claimed Ijaz had spoken to him a few days before May 9, 2011 – the day Ijaz first spoke to Haqqani. In fact, that is not the case. Ijaz’s telephone bills confirm he spoke to General Jones on May 9 but there is no way of confirming if the two spoke earlier as well or not. Ijaz could have called Jones from another phone number just as he says Haqqani called him from an “unidentified phone number” once. No one’s life revolves just around their BlackBerry or a single phone line.

Ijaz admits that he stopped using the particular BlackBerry set he used to communicate with Haqqani in May on July 4, 2011. This should point to changing of handsets being normal, just as Haqqani changed his BlackBerry sets later in the year. But for Ijaz, the man who deals with two dozen intelligence agencies around the world, his changing handsets is normal while someone else doing the same amounts to attempting to conceal evidence. What evidence? The well laid out story linking telephone conversations whose content cannot be proved with BlackBerry messages that make no mention of the memo or its subject. In fact, the only BBM messages that talk about the coup went from Ijaz to Haqqani by Ijaz’s own account.

In his statement before the commission, Mansoor Ijaz claimed that he never told Haqqani that he was transmitting the message he claims originated from Haqqani through General Jones. According to Ijaz, he “made modifications to the body text of the email to ensure that nothing could be traced to General Jones. This was done so that Haqqani does not find out who I was writing to and who was my contact.” Talk about acting out spy fantasies.

But the man he was protecting even from Haqqani according to his claim came out denying Ijaz’s account. If General Jones is or was closer to Haqqani than Ijaz, what was the need for the whole cloak and dagger operation in the first place? Other than Mansoor Ijaz’s vain desire to be part of something important and to be a character in his own spy novel?

Another interesting part of Mansoor Ijaz’s testimony is where he says of his contact with Haqqani after May. “On June 3, 2011 an article written by me was published in the weekly magazine Newsweek which is owned by the organisation The Daily Beast. Upon publication of the said article Haqqani contacted me and commented about its contents. We remained in contact till June 22, 2011 and I did not hear nor contact him again till early September 2011, when I received a message from him which I no longer retain, stating that he was intending to leave his office and was reaching out to his friends for their support.”

Why, one may ask, is this particular exchange of messages from September not retained by Mansoor Ijaz who has retained so many messages, including ‘Ping’ and ‘Okay’ from May on his BlackBerry handset and its backup on his computer? Was retaining the exchanges from May deliberate so that they could serve the purpose of weaving a story around them while the latter messages are being revealed verbally only because critics, like me, have asked why Ijaz did not stay in touch with Haqqani after undertaking such an important “mission” on his behalf in May? Apparently, a “crucial” PIN message from Ijaz to Haqqani is also missing according to Ijaz’s statement.

If saving PIN and BBM messages (which, by the way, is the only function of the BlackBerry handset for which the set’s PIN No is relevant) is subjective and if data can be altered or deleted then how does the Commission expect to resolve the question of how the memo was written based solely on BlackBerry handset data? It is true that a witness sitting in London and talking to judges through video link can be impressive, especially when he shows how he has technical means such as a BlackBerry handset to “confirm” what he claims. But given that our judiciary is not always technology savvy it should be careful in deferring to experts, preferably not ones proposed by one of the parties.

During the memo commission’s hearing on Friday, the commission asked its secretary to approach forensics experts named by Mustafa Ramday, counsel for Mian Nawaz Sharif. If the commission was to identify totally independent experts it would learn that alteration of BlackBerry handset data over time as well as in retrieving it from a computer back up is a definite possibility. In fact, one of the expert witnesses from FIA who testified before the commission on January 9 tried to explain that to the commission but was scolded by the commission’s head because he was explaining things too technically.

Haqqani’s lawyers will probably grill Mansoor Ijaz during cross-examination but knowing Ijaz, he will have a story to further his original story. After all, here is a man who managed to borrow money from a San Marino bank by telling them he had an Indian family’s backing of $50 million without ever naming the family. Ijaz recently threatened to “deal” with newspapers and blogs that “slandered” him but has not denied the substance of articles that say he may have exaggerated his fortune to claim uber-wealthy status without really being that wealthy. His claims about unnamed US officials threatening him about testifying before the memo commission is as ludicrous as his claim about getting information from unnamed intelligence officials in four unnamed countries.

Just as Mansoor Ijaz’s investors are unnamed so are his sources in his art-time occupation of super-spy. In 2003, journalist Richard Miniter, in a book titled “Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton’s Failures Unleashed Global Terror,” quoted Clinton administration officials who did not take Ijaz up on any of his offers to help get Osama bin Laden out of Sudan between August 1996 and 1998 because they viewed him as “a Walter Mitty living out a personal fantasy.” The US 9/11 Commission, which interviewed Ijaz, concluded that were was no “credible evidence” that the Sudanese had made any offer to hand over bin Laden.

According to Wikipedia, Walter Mitty is a fictional character in James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” first published in the New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and in book form in My World and Welcome to It in 1942. It was made into a film in 1947. Mitty is a meek, mild man with a vivid fantasy life: in a few dozen paragraphs he imagines himself a wartime pilot, an emergency-room surgeon, and a devil-may-care killer. The character’s name has come into more general use to refer to an ineffectual dreamer, appearing in several dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a Walter Mitty as “an ordinary, often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs.”

Mansoor Ijaz has had many incarnations as Walter Mitty. In a 2004 interview with Fox News, Ijaz made the sensational claim: Chemical warheads were being smuggled into Iraq for a potentially catastrophic attack against American troops. He claimed that the whole plan was given the green light by hardline Iranian mullahs. According to CNN analyst Peter Bergen, “The story had everything to attract attention – Mad mullahs! WMD on the loose in Iraq! (At last!) And the threat of thousands of potential American casualties.”

Ijaz told Fox in 2003 that “eyewitness sources” placed Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Iran. When host Brit Hume asked about the source of the claim, Ijaz replied, “I can just tell you that the source is unimpeachable. It is from inside Iran. These are eyewitness accounts.”

By 2006, Mansoor “Walter Mitty” Ijaz had adopted the description of a “US nuclear proliferation and terrorism expert.” In that capacity he told Gulf News newspaper that Iran not only had a nuclear bomb, it was seeking to “duplicate them in large numbers before revealing their existence to the world.” Six years later, Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon has still not materialised.

Tasked by the Pakistan Supreme Court to determine the origins, authenticity and purpose of Mansoor Ijaz’s memo to US Admiral Michael Mullen, the memo commission has bent over backwards to secure Ijaz’s testimony. But shouldn’t the commission look into the antecedents of the man before continuing a wild goose chase based on his phone bills, web of BlackBerry messages and emails, most of which either conceal the source or have unidentifiable intelligence agencies as sources.

With only Mansoor Ijaz as the explainer-in-chief, the memo story has already caused Husain Haqqani’s resignation and the army’s humiliation as a failed coup-maker. Let us hope it does not make our honourable judges look like people easily swayed by a fictional spy thriller just because it contained a lot of technical mumbo jumbo.

This piece was originally published by Daily Times on 4th March 2012.

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