Has cabinet violated Official Secrets Act?

Former diplomat questions cabinet move to release cipher number and date

Rizwan Shehzad   October 03, 2022
The meeting noted that vital national interests were damaged by giving concocted meaning to a diplomatic cypher for political gains. PHOTO: APP


As the ongoing “cipher imbroglio” deepened in the country in the aftermath of recent audio leaks, a former diplomat questioned on Sunday the federal cabinet’s move to mention the cipher’s number and date and annexure in the cabinet summary.

Referring to the federal cabinet documents that were released to media on Sunday which carried the cabinet’s summary, the retired diplomat said that if the whole cabinet had read the cipher then it was a violation of the Official Secrets Act.

The cabinet decided on Sunday to initiate legal action against former prime minister Imran Khan and others over conversation “available on the internet regarding the Cypher Message received from Parep Washington (Cypher No. I-0678 dated 7th March 2022) (Annex-I)”.

The retired ambassador, who spoke to The Express Tribune on the condition of anonymity, said that the cabinet had apparently violated the Official Secrets Act by mentioning the cipher’s particulars with the summary.

“By revealing the date and number and stating that it was annexed with the summary, an impression arises that the whole cabinet has read it and thus violated the secrets act,” the former diplomat said. “Even citing cipher No and date is a violation of the official secret act.”

Can cipher’s copy be made?

A cipher is distributed as per its grading. According to the diplomat the circulation of grade I and grade II telegrams is different but it’s up to the originator to specify the intended audience. The grade I cipher has limited circulation than the one categorised as grade II, he said.

The retired diplomat, who had served as Pakistan’s ambassador during his illustrious career, explained that ciphers were decoded at the crypto centre at Foreign Office and it automatically generates the given number of ciphers.
He further stated that there was no concept of copying the cipher as the machine would only generate ciphers as per the distribution list – grade I or II – unless mentioned that it was only for a specific person.

The “Record Copy” – usually referred to as the original – stays at the Foreign Office, the former envoy said, adding that making copies of the cipher was not allowed under the law – Official Secrets Act – and one needed permission from Foreign Office for making more copies.

“Even prime minister will have to first inform about the purpose and then make a copy of the cipher,” he said.

He explained that there were two types of ciphers; one that could only be decoded through customised machines and the other, called book cipher, which carried top secrets, and decoded by people through different codes.

The issue about cipher surfaced last week, after the federal cabinet accused the former prime minister of sacrificing key national interests for political gains by giving fictitious meaning to a diplomatic cipher, saying Imran had violated his oath and the “Official Secrets Act”.

Can PM be held responsible for missing cipher?

The cabinet meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Friday, also noted that the copy of the cipher was missing from the records of the Prime Minister’s House. The former envoy said that neither the cipher could be taken outside one’s office nor to one’s home.

However, the diplomat added that in some cases the ciphers were “read only” and only a designated person would take the cipher to the person concerned and bring it back to Foreign Office once it was read.

On the missing copy of the cipher, the diplomat said, “the notion was ridiculous”, saying it was not yet clear if the cipher had gone missing from the Prime Minister’s House or the minutes that were prepared after it was read out as suggested in the leaked audios.

“The prime minister can’t be held responsible for a missing cipher,” he said, “The prime minister doesn’t keep cipher with him; he doesn’t do filing; such things are kept at his principal secretary’s office.”

The former diplomat added that the principal secretary also had staff for keeping such things safe, just as a foreign secretary had staff for taking care of secret communications. “It’s an unending cycle,” he said.

While commenting on the ongoing controversy, a renowned lawyer said that it was a complicated issue and would require close examination of the record and various laws to comment on the matter.

When specifically asked what happens when a cipher or its copy goes missing, what crime does it constitute, what laws apply on it and what’s the punishment for it, the lawyer succinctly replied: “The answer is not obvious.”

From cipher to audio leaks

The controversy surrounding the diplomatic cable had initially surfaced when Imran had accused a US diplomat of allegedly threatening a Pakistani diplomat in a meeting, who then informed the Foreign Office about it through a cipher.

The issue came under renewed focus after two audio recordings emerged on social media, wherein Imran, his principal secretary and cabinet ministers were purportedly discussing how would they “play” with the cipher without naming the country – the US.

For a long time, successive governments have been embroiled in audio and video leak scandals but there has never been a comprehensive inquiry into any such allegations and denials. Overall, the ex-diplomat concluded, he had never heard or seen any such thing throughout his career and even afterwards.

He added that the cipher issue was being presented as if it was the end result and would resolve all the political and economic issues of the country. “They [politicians] just go after each other when in power,” he regretted.


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