Why is Pakistan investigating several audio leaks from PM office?

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has ordered the formation of a committee to investigate the leaking of several audio files released over the past week and a review of cybersecurity at the prime minister’s office (PMO).

The National Security Committee, comprising Sharif himself, top military and government officials met on Wednesday to discuss the audio leaks and ways to ensure fool-proof security at the PMO and other important government offices.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah will lead the committee, according to a statement released after the meeting.

What is the government investigating?

The leaks started on September 24 when multiple files of purported conversations, allegedly recorded in the PMO, emerged online. They apparently showed Sharif and other ministers talking about official matters. In at least one instance, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party’s vice president Maryam Nawaz Sharif could also be heard.

As soon as the files came began circulating on Pakistani social media, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb played down the matter, saying the files have nothing incriminating or illegal in them.

At a news conference on Tuesday, however, Sharif called the leaks a “very serious lapse” and announced the formation of a high-powered committee to probe the incident.

“This is a big question mark. Who will now come to Pakistan to meet the PM in the PM House? Be it a friend or a sympathiser, they will think twice about if they should mention anything sensitive or not. They will think 100 times, wondering if these conversations will be recorded,” the prime minister said.

What do the PMO audio files contain?

At least four different audio files purportedly recorded in the PMO have been leaked so far.

The first file included a conversation between Sharif and an unnamed government official, discussing the importation of industrial machinery from India.

Another file contains a purported conversation between Maryam and Sharif, discussing the performance of former Finance Minister, Miftah Ismail, who resigned earlier this week.

In that audio file, Maryam could be apparently heard complaining about Ismail’s performance and expressing her wish for the return from exile of Ishaq Dar, who has now replaced Ismail as the finance minister.

Dar, a 72-year-old veteran politician, returned last week from London where he lived since 2017 in a self-imposed exile following corruption allegations against him. He is close to the ruling Sharif family.

How were the audio files leaked?

There has been no official statement on how the audio files were leaked or who recorded them in the first place.

In a tweet on September 24, Fawad Chaudhry of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party hinted at a Twitter thread by an unidentified user.

The user, OSINT Insider, claimed the files were leaked online in August by a hacker who allegedly asked for $340,000 to release the complete material.

In another tweet the next day, Chaudhry attacked the intelligence agencies for their failure to find the source of the files. He also asked why the government was not responding to the leak.

“More than 100 hours of conversation from PMO is available for sale since August/September. But our agencies will only look at sensitive issues once they get free from their political tasks,” he tweeted.

Are there more audio leaks?

On Wednesday, a new audio file purportedly featuring opposition leader Imran Khan surfaced on social media when he was the prime minister.

In the audio file lasting just over 100 seconds, Khan is talking to a top bureaucrat about a “cypher” or secret cable sent to Islamabad by the then Pakistani envoy to the US.

“We only have to play it up. We don’t have to name America. We only have to play with this,” he could be heard saying.

Days before he lost a no-confidence vote in parliament in April this year, Khan had alleged a “foreign conspiracy” being hatched by the US to overthrow his government. Islamabad and Washington have denied the allegations.

It is unclear if the file about Khan is part of the same tranche of the PMO leaks aimed at incriminating the incumbent government.

Khan’s PTI party has not denied the authenticity of the audio tape so far, but the politician alleged the government itself had leaked it.

“This was leaked by Shehbaz Sharif at al. They did a good thing by leaking this,” Khan told reporters in Islamabad on Wednesday. “I say the whole cypher should be leaked. It should be apparent to everybody that what a huge foreign conspiracy this was.”

Khan’s PTI was also the target of two other leaks last month when purported telephone conversations between former Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin and two of his provincial counterparts were released.

Tarin, who confirmed the authenticity of the conversation, could be heard discussing the International Monetary Fund bailout package with the two ministers.