Intelligence in news of war?
I have been impelled to write this short article after closely following the reportage in your and other newspapers of the evolving military situation in Syria, citing dispatches by the British news agency, Reuters. As I went through my clippings of such Reuters reports over the last one month, I could not but be hit by a distinct and consistent negative orientation of the reports towards the Army and the government of President Bashar al-Assad, not reflected in the reports of, say, the AFP.
For example, a Reuters report on the civil war in Syria not only states that “in the town of Daraya southwest of Damascus, some 320 bodies, including women and children, were found in houses and basements”, but also that “UN investigators have accused both sides of war crimes, but laid more blame on government troops… than on the rebels.” In contrast, an AFP report did not contain the Reuters’ tilt, but recalled a rebel bomb attack last month that “killed four top security chiefs, including defence minister Daoud Raiha and Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat”.
The above assessment of mine took me back to September 1961, to a true “story” that goes as follows. In 1961, my father, the late G. Parthasarathi, a distinguished diplomat who later became the foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was in New York as a member of India’s delegation to the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) Annual Session. This was preparatory to his taking over as India’s ambassador to the UN.
Meanwhile, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to the US, on the invitation of President John F. Kennedy and to address the UNGA. At the very first one-to-one meeting between Nehru and Kennedy, the latter shared with Nehru the great pressure he was under from the “hawks” in his government for the US to intervene militarily in Vietnam. Such US intervention was, the hawks were arguing, imperative to stop the Communist government in North Vietnam from continuing its frequent and large-scale incursions into democratic South Vietnam. Kennedy then complained to Nehru that since 1958 India had lowered the stature of the diplomats it was appointing as chairmen of the International Commission for Supervision & Control, an international body constituted to maintain peace between the two parts of Vietnam.
Nehru said to Kennedy, “That can be corrected immediately. My expert on Vietnam, ambassador Parthasarathi, is right here, at the UNGA. I will send him off immediately to Vietnam.”
So at the end of Nehru’s two-day visit to Washington, he sent a message for my father that he should proceed to Vietnam immediately. Nehru assured my father that after a short three-four month stint there he could take up his assignment as ambassador to the UN in New York as already approved by Nehru.
Kennedy’s staff then arranged briefing meetings for my father with secretary of state Dean Rusk, secretary of defence Robert McNamara, the director of the CIA and others.
Now comes the key point. As my father was attending these briefing meetings, he got a telephone call in Washington from his old friend Walton Cole, managing director of Reuters. Cole told him that he had learnt that my father was going to Vietnam, directly from “Washington on a particular upcoming date except for an overnight stopover in London”. Cole invited my father to dinner at the top-floor flat of Reuters Building in London, during which, Cole said, he would arrange for my father to meet two or three persons “relevant to your mission in Vietnam”. My father accepted Cole’s invitation. He telephoned me in Cambridge, where I and my fiancée were studying, and asked us to join him at the dinner.
It was thus that the Cole family — Mr and Mrs Cole and their two daughters — and my father and the two of us met in the Reuters’ penthouse on September 28, 1961. After we had settled down, Cole took my father and me away for “the meeting” in the Reuters’ Board Room.
When we entered the Board Room even my father was shocked. Cole introduced us to the two men already in the room. They were, he said, the head of Reuters in Saigon, the then capital of South Vietnam, and his counterpart in Singapore. So, in barely 24 hours, both had flown to London from their respective headquarters. Secondly, and even more shocking, was the “Board Room”. Its wood-panelled walls were plastered with maps, charts and myriad photographs.
For the next 90 minutes, the two “Reuters journalists” gave us minutely detailed accounts of the political, military, economic, social and other aspects of both Vietnams, North and South, including the latest status of the internal structure of the political parties and the dynamics and politics between the various leaders.
The most staggering part of the “presentation” was the military one. It included detailed maps showing the disposition of various wings of the Armies and Air Forces of both North and South Vietnam.
It was a unique experience. It was only when I was science adviser to Indira Gandhi, from 1970-75, when I was given presentations in our War Room, that I recalled the above experience and saw it for what the Reuters exercise really was — a War Room presentation!
How could a UK-headquartered and UK-owned global “news agency” have got all this information and the people to present and analyse it? Perhaps because Reuters, like the Associated Press (AP) in the US, is an integral part of the British, indeed Western, intelligence system!
No wonder then that Reuters’ reporting of the ongoing war in Syria is tilted against Assad and in favour of the “Free Syrian Army”.
The writer is former science adviser to late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.