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Mar 19, 2011 at 12:07am IST

Diplomatic cables generally accurate: Mulford

Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a very special edition of the Last Word. The Hindu's WikiLeaks exposes have created a furore. The opposition claims this is proof of American arm-twisting and Congress corruption in politics. The government dismisses the cables as unverified and subjective. So today we ask where does the truth lie? That's with the Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, N Ram; America's Ambassador to India at the time when may of these cables were written David Mulford; and India's former Ambassador to the United States and former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh.

N Ram, let's start with what many consider the biggest of the WikiLeaks cable stories. Than an American Embassy employee was shown two chests containing cash by Satish Sharma's aide Nachiketa Kapur and told that this was part of a Rs 50-60 crore stash of money that had been put aside to bribe MPs to ensure the government won the confidence vote in 2008. And secondly, the same employee was told by Nachiketa Kapur that already four RLD MPs have been given Rs 10 crore each. In your eyes, does this amount to proof that the government bought MPs in July 2008?

N Ram: Absolutely, Karan. And moreover it should be a starting point for a criminal investigation right away.

Karan Thapar: David Mulford, as you perhaps know that this cable is potential political dynamite in India. It was sent by your then deputy chief of Mission Steven White, you were Ambassador at the time. Can you vouch for the veracity of its contents or could it be the case that Steven White and the concerned embassy employee were exaggerating or perhaps even concocting the details?

David Mulford: The only thing I can say on this that in my memory is about the fact that Parliament at the time had the vote of confidence. A Member of Parliament had turned up with what seemed to be a suitcase of money and dumped that on the table. That was pure theatrics and I would like to remind you that at that time the civil nuclear deal was nowhere near done. And that vote, as I remember, was a vote of confidence in the government.

Karan Thapar: Can I ask you this? Did Stephen White report the content of the cable to you? Did he share with you the information that he had got from the embassy employee?

David Mulford: I am not able to answer that question at the moment because this has just come out and I have already said what I remember about money appearing on the scene at that time.

Karan Thapar: Would you have any reason to believe that Stephen White would have exaggerated or he would have concocted? Do you have any reason to believe that?

David Mulford: I simply have nothing to say on that.

Karan Thapar: All right, you have nothing to say. Let me put it like this Lalit Mansingh, the Prime Minister speaking in Parliament today has called these claims unverified and he has also said that they were unverifiable. Let me ask you, would you have any reason to believe that a senior American diplomat cabling his own State Department in confidence would either exaggerate or, worse still, make up stories.

Lalit Mansingh: I wouldn't believe that he would exaggerate. I think, American diplomats are as professional as Indian diplomats are and an Indian diplomat wouldn't also exaggerate. But remember, diplomats only report, they are not investigators. So they rely on sources. If the sources are reliable, that report is reliable.

Karan Thapar: N Ram, let's take up the hint that we have got there from Lalit Mansingh that diplomats rely on sources and if the sources aren't reliable then the diplomat could be misled. This instance that the cables are relying on an unnamed embassy official, presumably so junior that he is not even referred to by his designation who was speaking to Nachiketa Kapur. A man about whom we have serious question marks about his track record. So how credible and reliable are the information in those cables?

N Ram: I think that should be checked out, because when they say an embassy official. It's clearly an Indian national, otherwise they wouldn't have used that term. And the CBI and the police can certainly find out who that person was and it was serious enough for Mr. White to report it to the State Department. He wouldn't report just idle gossip, would he? You can find out the name of this person.

Karan Thapar: Let me pursue that point with Ambassador Mulford. Ambassador Mulford, you are a seasoned ambassador. You have spent five years in India. Would your deputy chief of mission have reported something to the State Department if he didn't believe that it was true and only looked upon it as hearsay and gossip. Would he have not made some effort to establish the veracity of what he was reporting?

David Mulford: I think I have already said that I have nothing to say on this subject.

Karan Thapar: But I am actually asking you to simply tell me what you think of the quality of reporting done by Stephen White who was then your deputy chief of Mission. Do you believe that his reports would have been accurate and verified?

David Mulford: Certainly the reports from the US Embassy in general are accurate reports but as I have said I have nothing to say on this particular subject. I have already made a comment to the effect that that only thing I remember about money was when the Member of Parliament went into the session for the vote of confidence and presented a briefcase full of money, which all of us regarded as pure theatrics at that time.

Karan Thapar: Let me put this to you. Assuming that what Stephen White reported was something he believed was worth reporting and reasonably genuine. Should he not, knowing that he therefore had evidence of a crime having been committed and potential for further crimes likely to be committed, should he also not have informed the Indian Government of what he had stumbled upon?

David Mulford: I am not going to speculate on this kind of questions; Karan I am sorry to tell you that.

Karan Thapar: Ambassador Mansingh, in general, if a diplomat stumbles upon something that is a potential crime or a suspected crime, is there a duty or an onus to report it to the home government?

Lalit Mansingh: Only if it is a crime against his own country.

Karan Thapar: Not if it is a crime against the host government or the host country?

Lalit Mansingh: If it is a crime within the country, it is not his duty to report. But he was reporting as it something he had learnt about to the home authorities. If the home authorities thought that it was serious enough to report back to the host government, perhaps.

Karan Thapar: Okay. Let's then come gentlemen to a second set of those WikiLeaks exposed by your paper N Ram, this time leaks that suggest that there was a fair measure of American pressure on India over the issue of voting against Iran during the IAEA process of 2005. Now your paper has published a set of cables reporting on the conversation David Mulford had with then Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran. You've gone on record to say that you believe David Mulford was arm-twisting Saran. Why do you say that?

N Ram: Because Ambassador Mulford was a very distinguished person and an intellectual and he would surely remember these conversations and they are in cables which are part of the stock that The New York Times and The Guardian along with three other papers have published and their cables say so. The cables say so and Ambassador Mulford also weighed in with Dr Rice in one notable cable that we have reported on today and the text is up on our website.

Karan Thapar: Ambassador Mulford let me put that to you. Were you in your conversation with Shyam Saran, in August and September 2005 over the issue of India's vote over the Iran issue at the IAEA, were you arm twisting, were you weighing in, were you applying pressure?

David Mulford: Let's just go back in time, shall we, to deal with this thing. In July of that year is when the vision for that civil nuclear deal was launched by President Bush and Manmohan Singh and in September the vote was being prepared in the IAEA on Iran. This was very early days in the civil nuclear effort and what was clear was that the United States Congress was not particularly open to the civil nuclear proposal at that time. It was very, very clear to me that if India were to abstain or to sit on the fence as it were that that could do immeasurable damage to the prospects of the civil nuclear deal in the United States Congress. Because members of Congress were still to be convinced at that point. We were also just beginning to work on the separation agreement between India and the United States with regard to separation of facilities in India. And these things were early days. So it was appropriate for me to reflect to the Indian government the dangers of not supporting a vote on Iran. It would be very, very damaging to their prospects. I think that it was a key thing to do and to do well. I would not call it arm-twisting. The decision was certainly up to the Indian government, which eventually they made.

Karan Thapar: Can I quote to you from something that you said in your cable at that time to the State Department. "After pointing out to Shyam Saran that Congressmen were linking India's position on the vote on Iran with the prospects of the Indo-US nuclear deal and calling this a wake-up call for India." You then said, "India is sufficiently concerned to re-state its position on Iran's nuclear programme. We have an opportunity as a result." Doesn't that suggest that you at least believed that your arguments, what I call your pressure, was working on India.

David Mulford: Well, I think the evidence points to the fact that they understood the nature of the problem that was faced. They made, what I would regard as the appropriate decision in their own self interest because the civil nuclear deal, as we all know, took three-and-a-half years to do, was extremely complicated, both technically and politically and it was a very high priority for both of our governments to complete that deal. It required, you may remember, a change in United States' legislation. The first change in the Atomic Energy Act since 1954. And that was very, very big issue for members of Congress who were at the early phase not supportive. They had to be convinced and that took a lot of work.

Karan Thapar: Let me put it like this, Ambassador Mansingh. Look at the chronology, just hours before the Indian Prime Minister met George Bush at New York on the 13th of September 2005, David Mulford sent a cable to Condoleezza Rice where he first said that Indian officials were not being helpful and he asked her to use her influence to persuade India to vote against Iran. That clearly shows that even as late as the morning of the 13th India was reluctant to vote against Iran. Yet, days after the meeting with George Bush the Prime Minister sent instruction to Vienna that we should vote against Iran. Doesn't that chronology clinch it?

Lalit Mansingh: No, I think, it proves that Iran was a difficult issue. Shyam Saran mentioned it to Ambassador Mulford during his early meetings that we have interests in Iran, Iran is a key player to balance Pakistan, Iran is important for our strategic interests in Afghanistan, important supplier of hydrocarbons. We have to take a decision. That debate went on right till the meeting in New York and I think India concluded that it was in our interest to vote against Iran at IAEA.

Karan Thapar: I am going to come back to Ambassador Mulford, because I am told that we are going to lose the satellite connection to London in a couple of minutes. I'll come to N Ram a moment later. Lets come to something else that is also in the leaks. This time it is of your views on the Indian Cabinet reshuffle. When the reshuffle happened in 2006 you were quoted as having called Mani Shankar Iyer contentious and outspoken. You described Murli Deora as pro-US and you said that the reshuffle where Deora replaced Iyer as the Petroleum Minister was to ensure US-India relations continued to move ahead. You secondly said, "there is an undeniable pro-American tilt to the Cabinet reshuffle." Where did you get the confidence to come to that interpretation?

David Mulford: Well, it was my job to come to a conclusion on something as important as that and it was obvious to me then and remains obvious to me now that during this period of US-India strategic relationship was growing and strengthening and was a high priority for both of us. So developments of this kind were favourable to that continued development and I was making that point.

Karan Thapar: N Ram, your paper has published that particular cable in a context where you soft of suggest that this is proof that there was American pressure on India at the time of this reshuffle in 2006. Are you sure that's the correct conclusion to come to?

N Ram: Yes, this is what we believe and I just want to invoke this famous statement by CP Scott, "Opinion is free," you can say interpretation is free here, "but facts are sacred." That's the cable and I'm delighted that implicit in this whole discussion, at least you take it for granted that this is what happened. These cables are true, even though they will not confirm it officially. Otherwise we are wasting our time thinking about something whose status is not clear. That delights me about this discussion and I am very grateful to Ambassador Mulford for the courtesy he has shown in responding to these questions.

Karan Thapar: Mr Mansingh, let me put it like this, even if Ambassador Mulford is correct in saying that this is a pro-American reshuffle, is that necessarily embarrassing for the Indian government?

Lalit Mansingh: I think it is misinformed to call anybody pro-American or anti-American without proof. I think it's erroneous.

Karan Thapar: The Ambassador may not have shared his proof with us, but he is an intelligent man and presumably he had good reasons for believing that this is pro-American.

Lalit Mansingh: There is only one proof that is possible. Did this so-called pro-American ministers change policy and favour the United States against India's national interests? I don't think there is any case there.

Karan Thapar: Ram, how do you answer that particular point by Mr Mansingh?

N Ram: What's that point Karan?

Karan Thapar: That the only proof that these minister are pro-American is if they had changed policy in America's interest and they didn't do it therefore the claim that they are pro-American is unfounded and unwarranted.

N Ram: This is again a question of subjective interpretation for somebody who has held a high post and people come to their own views. This is our view. That this is what the Ambassador says. He is no garden-variety diplomat. Ambassador Mulford was a very high up diplomat in the US administration. If I remember right, when he was at the Treasury in the 90s the present Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was his assistant.

Karan Thapar: Absolutely. I'll stop you there, you are absolutely right. Let's not waste time building up Ambassador Mulford. Also he was also an award-winning Ambassador, an award for the way he handled the Indian mission when he was here in India. We have just about a minute-and-a-half left, let me come to the big broad picture quickly. What in your eyes do these leaks amount to? How significant are they?

Lalit Mansingh: I think they just prove one thing, that Indian diplomats and American diplomats are doing their job with efficiency, with professionalism, doggedly defending their national interests.

Karan Thapar: One other quick question. Now that these leaks have been made public and some people had to deny their involvement in them, possibly rightly, possibly wrongly. But will this impair American diplomacy in India? Hereafter will Indians be worried and hesitant to talk to Americans openly and frankly.

Lalit Mansingh: I think temporarily this would put a lid on candid discussions. But Indians will be Indians. I think we will come back to normal in our relations.

Karan Thapar: Our trademark will always prevail at the end. Is this what you are saying? N Ram, very quickly, should these have been published. Is there a greater public good which justifies the infringement of confidential official reports?

N Ram: Absolutely, because here we are one with The New York Times, The Guardian and the three other papers and this is a growing list. And we have been responsible for taking out names of people who...

Karan Thapar: You have taken out names of people who would have been compromised, who would have been responsible and as you say you are at one with The New York Times and The Guardian in publishing WikiLeaks. I think that was what you were saying. I have to quickly summarise, as because sadly we lost the connection at the point. We have come right to the end of this particular special and that would have to be the last word. I am sorry the satellite with Ambassador Mulford didn't last for the full duration. That happens sometimes in satellites. Thanks to N Ram and Lalit Mansingh for joining me and of course my thanks to Ambassador Mulford for making time for us and joining us from London. Goodbye. Goodnight.

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