For the cognoscenti, Dawn Leaks was going to be more damaging than the Panama Leaks, because it was seen by the armed forces as involving them directly, while the latter was seen more as an issue in which the Pakistan Tehrik Insaf (PTI) was more invested. Though the PTI is seen as the military’s surrogate by its opponents, the Panamagate issue was merely a stick with which the military could use to hit Mian Nawaz over the head with, as corruption is not seen as its particular issue.

The Dawn Leaks forced the resignation of Information Minister Pervez Rashid at the time it broke, and the JIT report also resulted in heads rolling: PM’s Special Assistant Tariq Fatemi was removed from the Foreign Ministry, and Principal Information Officer Rao Tehsin was also sacked. However, this was apparently not considered enough by the COAS, and acting as his spokesman, the DG ISPR took the highly unusual step of tweeting a negative reaction. This reaction itself created a crisis at least as big, perhaps bigger, than the original one. It was only settled by withdrawal after a ‘settlement of differences.’

There was some back-and-forth about whether the notification by the PM should have been made, or whether it should have been made by the Interior Ministry, but this ducked the question of the real target, which was the Prime Minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif. Her role in the running of government has raised hackles, for she has no official position, but has played a more prominent role ever since her father, Mian Nawaz, underwent bypass surgery while not taking any leave. However, for the time he was incapacitated in a London hospital, she was practically running the government on his behalf. Mian Nawaz took the reins back in his hands when he was back in the saddle, but Maryam Nawaz remained a major presence in PM Secretariat. If she had been accused in so many words of having leaked to the press the report of the conflict between Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif and the military, there would have been a smoking gun going directly to Mian Nawaz himself.

However, that does not seem to have happened. Still, the issue remains unresolved. How can an incident that didn’t happen affect national security? There is also the question of what exactly constitutes national security. News organisations would like to leave it to the professionals to decide, but find them (in other words the military) so cautious that they themselves have to decide. Of course, if something is untrue, then it should not have been reported as such, national security or no national security. The primary duty of any news organisation to its readers is to present its consumers (readers, viewers or listeners) the truth. However, if something happened, not reporting it is not really an option, and it should not be expected that anyone can stop publication. Otherwise, we are talking about censorship and Big Brother. True, the Information Ministry that was inherited by Pakistan was shaped to meet the requirements of the military.

However, the Ministry was not supposed to be blatant, and rather than just prevent the publication of unfavourable news, was supposed to change the ‘spin’ put on the news. For example, the news of the fall of France in 1940 could not be concealed, though the French Army would probably have preferred that the news of their defeat be kept from their civilian countrymen. The lampooning of the wartime Ministry of Information as the Ministry of Fear (made notorious in the Graham Greene novel of that name) showed the concern that is also reflected in the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, both reflecting Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, which was headed by the notorious Josef Goebbels. It was in the colonies that the government could afford to be heavy handed. This heavy handedness continued in Pakistan, which had inherited the wartime apparatus of the Raj.

The problem with this dependence on experts is that it allows the military to call the shots rather than the civilian government. An example is the way Pakistan entered the Baghdad Pact. The Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army, Gen Ayub Khan, decided to join without the government of the day being consulted. This was fully three years before he took over as the country’s first military ruler. At the expert level, perhaps the decision cannot be faulted. That joining was perhaps necessary to maintain the flow of US military aid. The USA provided the tanks which made possible the Chowinda tank battle of 1965, as well as the sole submarine on both sides which sank an Indian ship in 1965, as well as jets for the PAF, which ran rings around the IAF in 1965. The aid had not been supplied against India, but that is how it was used.

The ‘experts’, whether civilian or military, have got to deal with a new reality, that the USA is drawing closer to India. The military wishes to preserve the relationship with the USA, though it is now not that exclusive. Pakistan is no longer dependent on the USA for arms, which it is increasingly obtaining from China, though it still needs it to fulfill its hi-tech defence needs.

The case is a little outside the ordinary. After all, if the story is false, how can it be damaging to national security? At the same time, falsehoods cannot be allowed to flourish, for they then can be exploited by enemies of the country. Much military ire is directed at how the story was given much prominence in the Indian media. At the same time, even if false, the story of the militants being hand-in-glove with elements in the military has enough credibility to be published by a responsible news organisation. That does point to why the military has reacted so severely, for it confirms a pre-existing image rather than creates a new one. It reaffirms that India is seen as the perennial enemy, for the main cause of concern is not the story or even the impression it creates among the Pakistani people of the armed forces, as the image of them created in India or the USA.

At one level, it does not matter whether Mian Nawaz was behind the Dawn Leaks or not. Of course, if he was, then there would be the unedifying sight of a Prime Minister trying to undermine his own armed forces. But more relevant is whether the COAS wants to use it as a casus belli. The problem with relying on the experts is that those same experts do not restrict themselves to their field of expertise, in this case defense and security, but assume they could do a good job of other matters, like health, education and development.

If the COAS thinks that the time is ripe for a takeover, then Dawn Leaks will provide a justification, just as much as the hijack allegation provided Gen Pervez Musharraf an opportunity to take over in 1999. If he does not think so, he will paper them over even if the Prime Minister was behind them. In that case, the heads being sent rolling are meant to assuage the armed forces, and in turn give them the impression that the Leaks have been dealt with.

There is a saving grace in that the PPP and the PTI are both showing restraint, instead of using the issue to attack the government. They are apparently doing so safe in the knowledge that their role as the opposition is being played by the military, though they cannot be at ease that it is not playing the game for either of them, but only for itself.