Are PM Modi’s phone calls recorded? Lessons for India from President Trump’s travails

Would conversations between the Prime Minister or the National Security Advisor on the one hand and the Governor of Jammu & Kashmir on the other, for example, be similarly recorded and stored?

PM Modi and US President Trump
PM Modi and US President Trump

Uttam Sengupta

Even as an astonishing impeachment drama unfolds in Washington D.C., it holds out pointers for all democracies. Take, for example, the initial take-aways:

1. All phone calls made by the US President are recorded and stored, ‘as is customary’! It would be safe to assume that official calls made by other senior officers in the White House too would be available on record.

2. Even more astonishingly, half a dozen officials actually listened in to the call between Donald Trump and the newly elected President of Ukraine on July 25. The call, explained White House officials to the whistleblower, was not restricted to fewer people because it was thought the call would be ‘routine’.

3. White House officials confirmed that President Trump’s lawyers had directed the call record and the transcript to be stored in a more secure ‘system’ (server) dealing with national security with access restricted to fewer officials. The call with the Ukrainian President did not warrant it, the whistleblower quoted White House officials as saying in his complaint.

4. The Whistleblower, a US Intelligence officer, collected the information in his ‘official capacity’ and was perturbed enough to report it to the US Congress through the director of US Intelligence, who on Thursday was summoned by the US House of Representatives and defended the whistleblower.

5. The US President is being accused of abusing his official position by soliciting the intervention of the Ukrainian President to further his domestic, electoral agenda. One example of how foreign interests can influence and interfere in US elections.

Such action would clearly be unthinkable in India, where even minutes of official meetings are seldom kept. Would conversations between the Prime Minister or the National Security Advisor on the one hand and the Governor of Jammu & Kashmir on the other, for example, be similarly recorded and stored?

Let us say it’s highly unlikely and chances are there are no protocols to record the PMO’s conversations and meetings or to subject them to scrutiny of any kind.

What is more important is the role of the US House of Representatives’ and the Us Senate Committees on Intelligence, which received the complaint and summoned the Acting Director of US Intelligence James Maguire to answer questions. Surely it is high time the Indian Parliament exercised similar control over Indian Intelligence agencies?

As the slugfest continues between the US Congress and the White House, it is instructive to read the Whistleblowers’ complaint in full or in part.

A few important passages from the complaint, which on Thursday spilled into the public domain, are as follows:

• In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President's main domestic political rivals. The President's personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well.

• Over the past four months, more than half a dozen U.S. officials have informed me of various facts related to this effort. The information provided herein was relayed to me in the course of official interagency business. It is routine for U.S. officials with responsibility for a particular regional or functional portfolio to share such information with one another in order to inform policymaking and analysis.

• I was not a direct witness to most of the events described. However, I found my colleagues' accounts of these events to be credible because, in almost all cases, multiple officials recounted fact patterns that were consistent with one another. In addition, a variety of information consistent with these private accounts has been reported publicly.

• Based on my understanding, there were approximately a dozen White House officials who listened to the call -a mixture of policy officials and duty officers in the White House Situation Room, as is customary. The officials I spoke with told me that participation in the call had not been restricted in advance because everyone expected it would be a “routine" call with a foreign leader. I do not know whether anyone was physically present with the President during the call.

• In addition to White House personnel, I was told that a State Department official, Mr. T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, also listened in on the call.

• I was not the only non-White House official to receive a readout of the call. Based on my understanding, multiple State Department and Intelligence Community officials were also briefed on the contents of the call as outlined above.

• In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to "lock down” all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced—as is customary-by the White House Situation Room. This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.

• White House officials told me that they were "directed” by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization, and distribution to Cabinet-level officials.

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Published: 27 Sep 2019, 11:27 AM