- David Frum: Lawyer in Pakistan accused him of being a paid agent of that country
- He says the lawyer offered no evidence to back up the spurious charge
- Frum says the context of the accusation is Pakistan's "memogate" scandal
- He says the evidence makes it seem likely that "memogate" is a hoax
That was an interesting week!
On Wednesday, Google Alerts brought me a piece of startling news: A lawyer speaking to a tribunal of the Supreme Court of Pakistan had accused me of acting as a paid agent of the government of Pakistan.
No, seriously, that's what the man said.
From Pakistan's Daily Times on May 23:
"Counsel Akram Sheikh had claimed in a statement that a Pakistani embassy provided funds to Harlan Ullman and David Frum for damage control after the memo controversy."
I was so taken aback by the claim that I telephoned Sheikh to ask whether it was true. We had a short but intense exchange. Sheikh flew immediately into a rage at me, accused me of harassing him, insisted that I was somehow violating Pakistani law by telephoning him, refused to confirm or deny the Daily Times account and ended by inviting me to sue him for defamation.
My confidence in the Pakistani system of justice not being very high, I declined the latter invitation. But given that Sheikh's charges have gained a hearing inside Pakistan, some kind of answer seems due.
Sheikh's charges are false, of course. Duh. More surprising than the falsehood, though, is the sheer laziness of the charge. Where is the fake evidence? The forged check, the bogus wire transfer, the suborned courier? Money always leaves a record. Can you really stand up in front of a Pakistani tribunal and spout whatever fool nonsense pops into your head? Apparently so.
Yet as ludicrous as are Sheikh's statements about me -- I'll leave Ullman to speak for himself -- this small comedy is a piece of a much larger drama.
On October 10, Britain's Financial Times printed an opinion piece that contained an arresting claim: The author said he had personally conveyed a memo from the Pakistani Embassy in the U.S. to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, requesting U.S. help to prevent a military coup.
The story was dramatic and important, but there was one troubling element: the byline on the piece. The author was Mansoor Ijaz, a writer with a long, long history of discredited assertions. Remember the story about the Clinton administration rejecting a 1996 offer by the government of Sudan to extradite Osama bin Laden? That story, investigated and debunked by the September 11 Commission, continues to circulate among the American right to this day. That story was the work of Ijaz, the first -- but not the last -- of his disproven allegations. (Click here for a comprehensive list by CNN's Peter Bergen and by Andrew Lebovich.)
Yet despite the dubious source, the Financial Times story ignited a firestorm in Pakistan. Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. was forced to resign.
Not content with his first success, Ijaz added further allegations, including one that the government of Pakistan had been tipped off the to bin Laden raid.
That latter claim was even more explosive: Only last week, a Pakistani court sentenced to 33 years in prison a local doctor convicted of helping the United States track bin Laden.
Now to my part in the story. Writing here at CNN.com in December, I ridiculed Ijaz's suggestion that the U.S. government would ever have shared such information with the government of Pakistan, and reminded readers of Ijaz's history of unreliability.
This column caught the attention of authorities inside Pakistan. Pakistan had convened a special commission of its Supreme Court to investigate Ijaz's memo allegations.
On March 15, that commission asked Ijaz to answer my column. Ijaz, who was under oath, told the tribunal that he had sued me for libel. He said, "In view of the fact Mr. Frum defamed me, my lawyers in Washington informed him that if he does not retract, I will be taking legal action against him."
(You can read the transcript here. This exchange is on page 43.)
This statement was untrue. No lawyer for Ijaz had ever contacted me, I was never threatened with legal action over the column, and I did not retract it, points I made in a follow-up column March 21.
Sheikh is Ijaz's counsel before the investigating commission. I surmise it was irritation with my March 21 column that led Sheikh to concoct the new accusation that I was a Pakistani government spy.
My sense, from the distance of Washington, is that Pakistanis are slowly coming to the realization that the memo controversy was a hoax. Yet as with the false charges against Clinton, the damage to Pakistani civil institutions from the memo controversy will not soon be undone.
Those Western media organizations that enabled the hoax have a reckoning to do. Ijaz has a long and proven record of false reporting about some of the most serious issues of international security. It seems only elementary editorial prudence to decline to put media institutions ever again at risk of publishing further false stories, by closing their pages and their TV studios against such a man with such a record.