CHICAGO — Testifying in court for the first time about national security matters, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger told a jury Monday that while he never knew the names of intelligence sources, "to the best of my knowledge" former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai was not a CIA agent.
But in carefully measured testimony, Kissinger never said, unequivocally, that Desai was not an agent.
Kissinger's unprecedented federal court appearance came in a libel suit Desai filed against journalist Seymour Hersh for assertions in his 1983 book, "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House." In a chapter dealing with India, Hersh wrote that Desai was a paid CIA agent who provided information on plans and policies of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Seeks $100 Million in Damages
Desai, now 94 and in poor health in Bombay, called Hersh's report "a scandalous and malicious lie." The former Indian politician, who also served as finance minister and deputy prime minister, is asking for $100 million in damages claiming the book brands him as a traitor to India.
Hersh, who won a 1970 Pulitzer Prize for disclosing the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, sat quietly, eyes fixed on Kissinger. Hersh, who has written extensively on the American intelligence community, maintains that he has multiple confidential sources for his claim and believed the information was true when he wrote the chapter.
U.S. District Judge Charles R. Norgle ruled last week that Hersh did not have to reveal his sources.
Sometimes testy and sometimes witty, Kissinger was a reluctant witness who had fought the subpoena served on him two weeks ago when he was giving a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. Outside the courtroom, he told reporters that he had an agreement with lawyers that if he gave a deposition in the case, he would not have to appear in court.
"I was not eager to testify," he said.
Kissinger, who was accompanied by his wife, Nancy, said this was only his second time he had ever appeared in court. The first time, he said, he was a witness for Mrs. Kissinger, who was accused of assaulting a supporter of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche at an airport terminal. She was acquitted.
In court Kissinger discussed information the United States received in the days leading up to the 1971 India-East Pakistan war that led to the formation of the new country of Bangladesh and acknowledged that there was reliable information coming from within the Indian government.
Before giving his deposition in the case, Kissinger said he checked with former CIA director Richard Helms. Kissinger, responding to a question by Hersh's lawyer, Bernard Nussbaum, said he told Helms that "to the best of my belief Mr. Desai was not an agent. And he (Helms) said, 'you are on safe ground saying that.' "
When Desai's lawyer, Cyriac Kappil, asked Kissinger if he ever had a reason to believe Desai was an agent in 1969, '70 and '71, Kissinger said: "I have no such reason to believe that."
The former national security adviser to President Richard M. Nixon and secretary of state under both Presidents Nixon and Gerald R. Ford could not, however, identify names of sources of information.
"We were never briefed as to names, but we were briefed as to categories," Kissinger said. However, he said that he could not discuss what those "categories" were. "That gets us into classified areas."
Attests to Unknown Sources
But Kissinger also testified that the U.S. did have sources unknown to him who were providing high-level intelligence from within the Indian government.
After his three hours on the witness stand, Kissinger told reporters that he too considered filing a libel suit against Hersh after reading portions of the book but decided against it because of the time that it would take. And he said he hoped this was his last association with the journalist.
"I would be just as happy if I never heard of Mr. Hersh again," Kissinger said. "I'm not looking for an opportunity to prove points against Mr. Hersh. Frankly, the quicker he goes out of my life the happier I'll be."
The trial is expected to last several more days.
Desai's lawyers filed their suit in Chicago citing a tradition of filing defamation actions in the home town of the defendant. While he was born in Chicago, Hersh no longer lives here.