#DawnLeaks: A classic media influence operation

The Dawn Leaks report is finally here and a notification has been issued from the PM House. Four people and an institution have been blamed for Dawn Leaks that include Rao Tehsin Ali, Principal Information Officer in the Ministry of Information, and Tariq Fatemi, the Special Assistant to the PM. Moreover, ‘disciplinary action’ has been suggested against the journalist Cyril Almeida as well as Dawn’s editor Zaffar Abbas. Most insiders who are anything significant know that this notification is inaccurate and has been changed over time. This is certainly not part of the report that General Raheel Sharif endorsed and I’m not so sure that he will be willing to endorse this one. ISPR has already rejected this notification in a tweet. It is likely that the government will have to reconsider and reevaluate this notification and instead make the complete report public. On the other hand, Dawn News is trying to cover up what the notification says about its editor and journalist. While many will indeed continue to debate this, and rightly so, in this article I will revisit this whole ‘event’ to get a better perspective.

What Is Dawn Leaks?

Dawn Leaks was a classic media influence operation that was backed by Pakistan’s foreign enemies and carried out primarily by Dawn News, Pakistan’s oldest English paper, on 6th October 2016. Cyril Almeida, a young ambitious Christian journalist who also once worked for Geo News, was chosen for this operation. The story he published can be read here. The essence of the story was that in a high-level meeting between civilian leaders and military & intelligence leaders, the civilian leadership told their military colleagues to ‘act’ against ‘terrorists’ or get ready to face international isolation. This story gave the impression that Pakistani military is supporting, or at best willingly not acting against, some terrorist groups. This was the same narrative that has been imposed on Pakistan from India and it’s international allies. Moreover, the story was published at a time when it could do the most damage, and it did. Just a few days ago, on 29 September 2016 India had claimed to carry out surgical strikes in Pakistani territory that later turned out to be a cross-border attack that was successfully repelled by Pakistan. But India claimed to have hit “terrorist launch pads” in Pakistani territory, directly accusing Pakistan of harboring anti-India terrorists. Just 7 days later, Dawn published the story that directly validated India’s claim that Pakistan supports, or doesn’t act against, some terrorists. Was this connected? Any intelligence professional will tell you “you bet it was”. Moreover, the story published in Dawn also intended to portray to the audience that Pakistan’s civilian leaders agree with India’s narrative but the military may is the main hurdle. This portrayal was deliberate. Anyone who has observed the rhetoric of Indian analysts and Western anti-Pakistan analysts like Christine Fair knows they don’t badmouth civilian leaders or civilians in general but instead they single out Pakistani military and Pakistan’s Intelligence Community (IC) but primarily ISI. And yet, the story in Dawn also gave the same impression. This may be because the international establishment as well as India see Pakistani military and its IC as the main hurdle in the way of their grand designs for Pakistan and the region.

The Dawn story was slammed by Pakistan’s defence circles and Opposition political leaders as well as by Corps Commanders of Pakistani Army in at least two different Corps Commanders Conferences (CCC). General Raheel Sharif and Corps Commanders of Pak Army called the story concocted and planted. This was very significant since they didn’t simply call it one or the other. And they were right. The story was indeed fabricated first and then planted at a time when it did the maximum damage to Pakistan’s national security and its international standing.

If the story was fabricated first, which it was, then this goes way beyond just a journalist or a media group. This report could have only been fabricated by a civilian government insider. I say a civilian government insider and not a military insider simply based on the fact that the story was meant to portray civilian leaders as a whole as steadfast against terrorism while Pakistani military was intentionally portrayed as an institution that was allied with terrorists. Many Pakistani journalists have actually already reported the names of government insiders that were behind this operation but I will avoid taking any names here. But what can be definitively said is only someone in the top tier civilian leadership can fabricate this and then try to get away with it. This is also why despite being a matter of national security the report was delayed for so long even though it was expected to be made public last year. It is feared that if the real names come out, the current civilian setup may not survive since the investigation will lead to some very nasty things and the investigation may even eventually lead to some foreign players.

Certain domestic and international elements also waged a social media campaign against DG ISPR over his tweet rejecting the notification. Even though Pakistan’s civilian leaders, from Bilawal Bhutto to PM Nawaz’s daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, use Twitter extensively. So why is tweeting suddenly wrong when it’s the military informing the public about its stance on a case to which military is a party? That is a question that can only be answered by those usual suspects who waged this propaganda campaign. In fact, what followed DG ISPR’s tweet was another influence operation that was successful in moving the discussion from Ehsanullah Ehsan and what he said to “Pak Army is bad”. This influence operation neutralized much of the impact of Ehsanullah Ehsan’s video confessional statement.

What Now?

Pak Army has already rejected the notification that was issued, calling it incomplete, and it is yet to be seen where this goes from here. Clearly there’s still some confusion over this. The report has already been delayed for too long and if it was up to me, I would advocate for making the *real* report public today. But since those in the top tier leadership who are involved in this national security crime will try their best to wriggle their way out of this, the *real* report may take some more time. Unless institutions responsible for Pakistan’s national security take matters into their own hands. Pakistan as a state is above any civilian government setup or any individual(s) and it cannot afford such attacks on its national security from within. Pakistan has been a victim of hybrid warfare for last several years. Media influence operations and political infiltration/manipulation are a pivotal part of hybrid warfare. Dawn Leaks case is a test case in this area. If Pakistan’s national security institutions failed to deliver justice to the nation on Dawn Leaks case, it will be a victory for the enemy and will forever undermine Pakistan’s national security. For these and many more reasons, the *real* report of Dawn Leaks must be made public and a *real* investigation must be carried out and every single person behind this national security breach should face the music.

This article was originally published on Ground Zero, and is being cross-posted here with the author’s consent.

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