Less than six months ago, the identity of the previous CIA station chief in Islamabad was also disclosed in an act that U.S. officials blamed on their counterparts in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI.
The new station chief, who runs one of the largest U.S. intelligence-gathering operations in the world, played an instrumental role in overseeing efforts to confirm bin Laden’s location before last week’s raid.
The discovery of bin Laden’s presence in a Pakistani city was considered a huge embarrassment for Pakistan’s military. The United States viewed it as an opportunity to press Pakistan, the recipient of billions of dollars in annual American aid, to crack down harder on militants. Outrage among Pakistanis over the operation was also seen as a rare chance for the weak civilian government in Islamabad to stake its claim in foreign and security policy, long the domain of the army.
But the nation’s security establishment has reacted with furor, not humility, people familiar with top Pakistani generals’ thinking said Monday. Their response has been two-pronged: to shift blame for the bin Laden episode to the government of President Asif Ali Zardari and, according to American officials, to strike back against U.S. allegations that Pakistani spies were either complicit in sheltering bin Laden or incompetent.
The CIA station chief’s name was first aired by a private Pakistani television station on Friday, and a misspelled version of the name was published the next day in the Nation newspaper, which is considered close to the security establishment. The Washington Post does not typically publish the names of intelligence officers working undercover.
Pakistani intelligence officials could not be reached for comment on the U.S. allegation. American officials acknowledged that they had no hard evidence, but a U.S. official said that the suspicion was “based on past history.” The official indicated that evidence has accumulated in recent months that the ISI was behind the exposure of the station chief last year.
In that instance, the CIA pulled the officer out of Pakistan. But it is not clear whether the agency will do the same now. The prior chief was nearing the end of his assignment in Pakistan when he was recalled to agency headquarters. The current CIA leader in Islamabad has been there only about five months. He was described as a veteran officer known for his blunt manner and extensive operations experience in Russia.
“This is a seasoned CIA veteran who is a professional and someone who knows how to deal with foreign intelligence services very well,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Former CIA officials who have worked in Pakistan said station chiefs typically work within the U.S. Embassy compound and could function in the job even if their cover were blown. “You live on the compound, you work on the compound, you walk to work,” said a CIA veteran with extensive experience in Pakistan.
Pressure on government
Within Pakistan, the bin Laden operation has evolved from a major intelligence failure to a political football. Opposition parties, the media and the army have chastised the unpopular Zardari administration, and some have called for resignations. On Monday, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, widely viewed as Pakistan’s most powerful man, cited public dismay over “insufficient formal response” and said, “The people of Pakistan need to be taken into confidence through their honorable elected representatives.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani was expected to provide answers for the nation in a televised address to Parliament. Instead, he repeated talking points previously offered by other military and government officials, and he said the army, rather than a civilian body, would investigate possible lapses.
Bin Laden’s death, Gillani said, was “justice indeed.” He dismissed as “absurd” accusations that the military was incompetent or complicit and said Pakistanis were incensed by a U.S. raid that they viewed as a violation of sovereignty.
“We did not invite al-Qaeda to Pakistan,” Gillani said. “It is disingenuous for anyone to blame Pakistan or any state institution of Pakistan, including the ISI and the armed forces.”
Army on the defensive
Pakistan’s army, the fifth-largest in the world, has cultivated a reputation here as the ultimate defender of a fragile nation. But the bin Laden raid exposed it to denunciations from commentators, who accused it of not being up to the task of guarding the country’s nuclear arsenal or detecting terrorists.
In a meeting last week with Pakistani journalists, the ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, “almost choked with anger while complaining that the ISI was facing not just outside challenges but constant criticism from inside,” according to a column Monday by one attendee, Syed Talat Hussain, in the English-language daily Dawn. Kayani, he wrote, “was visibly irritated when he said that the civilian government had abandoned the ship of policymaking.”
For days, the army seemed paralyzed by the accusations, but it has since focused on what it deems a U.S. violation of sovereignty, a hot-button topic in Pakistan.
“They are trying to protect their name, which is in tatters,” said a former senior security official who is familiar with Pakistani military leaders’ thinking. “The feeling among these people is that we have been wronged.”
In a measure of the distrust between the United States and Pakistan, the U.S. military prepared for a possible confrontation with Pakistani forces at the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad.
U.S. officials said that two Chinook helicopters were placed inside Pakistan, ready to help extract the assault team from Abbottabad. Among the considerations, CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an interview with PBS, was, “Could [U.S. forces] be locked into that compound because of the Pakistanis suddenly attacking that compound and putting them in a very difficult position?”
The scenario never materialized, but one of the Chinooks was needed for a different reason. It rushed to the compound after a Blackhawk helicopter was disabled after colliding with a compound wall.
Privately, Pakistani government officials voice confidence that it is the Pakistan army’s reputation — not that of the civilian administration — that is on the line. Some say they expect that the trove of evidence gathered by U.S. Navy SEALs at bin Laden’s compound will implicate intelligence officials, or at least embarrass the army.
“There’s a lot of egg on many people’s faces in Pakistan, but luckily none of those faces are civilian,” said a senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Yet even some in the government express concern that Zardari and Gillani — who usually seem occupied with keeping their teetering coalition government afloat — have missed a chance to capitalize on the army’s failures. Some acknowledge that after three years of ceding the national security portfolio to the military, it is difficult for them to take a stance now.
“When you have an opening and an opportunity, you have to have someone willing to capitalize on it,” said Cyril Almeida, an editor at Dawn. “And I don’t know whether the present civilian government has the capacity or the will to do anything.”
Miller reported from Washington.