Report: Prank call to Zardari almost led to war


A hoax telephone call almost sparked another war between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan at the height of last month's terror attacks on Mumbai, officials and Western diplomats on both sides of the border said today.

Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, took a telephone call from a man pretending to be Pranab Mukherjee, India's Foreign Minister, on Friday, November 28, apparently without following the usual verification procedures, they said.

The hoax caller threatened to take military action against Pakistan in response to the then ongoing Mumbai attacks, which India has since blamed on the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), they said.

Mr Zardari responded by placing Pakistan's air force on high alert and telephoning Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, to ask her to intervene.

But when Dr Rice called Mr Mukherjee, he said that he had not spoken to Mr Zardari and that his last conversation with Shah Mahmood Qureishi, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, had been quite civil.

"It's unbelievable, but true," said a Western diplomat familiar with the frantic diplomatic exchanges that eventually resolved the misunderstanding.

"It was a little alarming, to say the least."

UPDATE: Sherry Rehman, the Pakistani information minister, says the call was "processed, verified and cross-checked under an established procedure":

Without naming [leading Pakistani newspaper] Dawn, which carried the story in its edition of Dec 6 titled ‘A hoax call that could have triggered war’, a statement quoted the federal minister as having said, while commenting on reports in a section of the press, that it was not possible for any call to come through to the president without multiple caller identity verifications.

The Nov 28 call by someone from New Delhi who posed himself as Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, she insisted, had also been processed, verified and cross-checked in accordance with an intricately laid down procedure.

“In fact the identity of this particular call, as evident from the caller line identification device, showed that the call was placed from a verified official phone number of the Indian ministry of external affairs”, Ms Rehman said.


Transition update

Here's the latest on Obamaland:

  • Retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki is being tapped to head the Veterans Affairs Department. A former Army chief of staff, Shinseki famously warned the U.S. Congress in February 2003 that "several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed in Iraq.
  • Jared Bernstein, an economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, has been selected as Vice President-elect Joe Biden's economic advisor.

    "Jared Bernstein is an acclaimed economist, and a proven, passionate advocate for raising the incomes of middle class families. His expertise and background in a wide range of domestic and international economic policies will be an invaluable asset to the Obama-Biden Administration," Biden said in a statement.

    Bernstein is also a former deputy to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. His most recent book is called Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries). He's a prolific commentator  -- see his Huffington Post columns here -- and a noted skeptic on free trade.
  • California Rep. Xavier Becerra is Obama's choice for U.S. Trade Representative, but he reportedly is not sure he wants the job. He's another skeptic when it come to free trade, having said he regretted his vote in favor of NAFTA and having led the opposition to CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
  • Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had this to say about the pick of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state: "I think if there is good strategic direction from the center, namely from the White House, and she is its executor, I would say yes. But if she is on her own and asserts her own sort of autonomy and tries to run foreign policy on her own, then I think it is legitimate to ask, well, what exactly are her strategic views, how consistent are they with the president's -- in some instances we know they were quite different -- and can she really pull it off on her own?"