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Top CIA spy in Pakistan pulled amid threats after public accusation over attack

By Greg Miller and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 6:44 AM

U.S. officials said Friday they are increasingly convinced that Pakistan's intelligence service deliberately exposed the identity of the CIA's top spy in Pakistan, triggering death threats and forcing the agency to pull him from his post.

The allegation marks a new low in the relationship between the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart at a time when both intelligence services are under pressure to root out militant groups and the CIA is waging a vastly accelerated campaign of drone strikes.

The CIA officer was rushed out of the agency's massive station in Islamabad on the same day that President Obama issued a new warning to Pakistan's leaders that "terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with."

Obama's speech was followed Friday with fresh evidence that the United States will continue pounding militant groups when Pakistan can't or won't. Three CIA drone attacks reportedly killed as many as 54 suspected militants in the Khyber tribal area near the Afghan border, an unusually large casualty count.

The CIA station chief was first identified in news reports in Pakistan last month when he was named by a Pakistani attorney representing a North Waziristan resident who said two relatives and a friend were killed in drone strikes. The resident threatened to file a lawsuit against the agency and this week asked Pakistani police to file a criminal complaint against the station chief and prevent him from leaving the country.

It was unclear whether the threat of potential arrest contributed to the agency's decision to remove the officer from Islamabad.

A U.S. intelligence official said the officer became the target of death threats after his cover was blown. The station chief, the official said, was recalled to CIA headquarters because "terrorist threats against him in Pakistan were of such a serious nature that it would be imprudent not to act."

There has been speculation for weeks in the Pakistani and Indian news media that Pakistan's spy service, known as the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, had played a role in encouraging the North Waziristan resident to bring suit and had provided the station chief's name.

U.S. officials said Friday for the first time that they were increasingly persuaded that was the case. The ISI, as the Pakistani service is known, may have done so in retaliation for a civil lawsuit filed in New York last month accusing ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha of being involved in the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, U.S. officials suggested. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity.

An ISI official denied Saturday that the Pakistani service had leaked the station chief's name. "We take very strong exception to this story that has come out, and we deny it," the official said. "It is totally unsubstantiated, and it is likely to cause further rifts between the two organizations."

The ISI official said the identity of the station chief was known to many people in Islamabad, including foreign and local journalists and other people outside government. "If there is an official complaint that the CIA has, then they should use official channels rather than leaking it to newspapers," the official said.

The CIA requested that the recalled station chief, who is still undercover despite being named in multiple overseas media reports, not be identified. The officer, 43, was described by current and former colleagues as a case officer who had previously served in Stockholm and Baghdad and was regarded as a rising talent in the agency's clandestine service.

"He's a young, aggressive, up-and-coming officer with a lot of Middle East experience," said a former CIA officer. Agency veterans said the exposure of the officer's identity will severely limit, if not eliminate, his ability to again operate overseas.

The officer had served a year in the Islamabad station, which is one of the largest in the CIA's constellation of overseas posts. As station chief, he would have had a principal role in selecting and approving targets for Predator drone strikes, officials said.

Ordinarily, station chiefs in Islamabad rarely stray beyond the sprawling American diplomatic compound, living and working in a warren of apartments and offices set deep inside the embassy complex's walls.

CIA veterans who have worked in the station said the station chief is often known among senior embassy staff but that there would be significant risk to leaving the officer in place if his name became more widely known.

"There's kind of a guessing game that's played, but when this happens there is no more game," said the former CIA official, citing the risk of an attack by an insider with ties to a militant group. "There's hundreds of Pakistanis who work on that compound," the former official said.

In recent interviews in Washington and Islamabad, senior CIA and ISI officials have praised the relationship between the agencies while acknowledging frictions and lingering mistrust. U.S. officials have repeatedly accused the ISI of supporting certain militant groups as proxy forces capable of protecting Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials frequently criticize the U.S. military and intelligence services for their mishandling of the Afghan war.

The CIA has launched more than 107 drone strikes in Pakistan this year, more than double the number from 2009. The strikes are tacitly approved by Pakistan but are deeply unpopular among Pakistani citizens, many of whom believe that the strikes kill civilians.

Mirza Shahzad Akbar, the attorney for the man whose relatives were allegedly killed in a drone strike, said Friday that 12 other North Waziristan families have agreed to participate in what amounts to a class-action lawsuit.

Akbar said that as he was preparing the case, he decided to ask journalists in Islamabad for the name of the station chief. Two Pakistani print reporters gave him the same name, he said, so he "assumed that was his name and . . . decided to go on with it."

Akbar said he thought the station chief was removed because of U.S. worries about the potential success of the lawsuit, not because of threats.

"I thought he would be pulled out, but I didn't think he would be pulled out this fast," he said.

The combination of virulent anti-Americanism among the public and a muscular Islamist insurgency has made Pakistan one of the most hostile working environments for U.S. government officials.

The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad - often derided in the Pakistani media as a "fortress" - is ensconced along with other embassies inside a highly secured enclave. Although U.S. diplomats live in private homes, many travel in armored vehicles.

Because of U.S. security concerns and Pakistani government rules, American diplomats and aid workers face strict restrictions on where they can travel outside Islamabad. Many are unable to see in person the projects they work on during their postings.

The threats have been particularly acute for U.S. officials working in the volatile northwest. In April, insurgents attacked the U.S. Consulate in the city of Peshawar with car bombs, rifles and grenades, killing eight people, none of them Americans.

An American aid worker, Stephen D. Vance, was fatally shot while driving to work in Peshawar in November 2008, three months after the U.S. consul general there escaped a similar attempt on her life.

Despite those incidents, U.S. officials say they are striving to make their work more visible, in an effort to improve the way the Pakistani public views the United States.

"One thing that we ought to do at this embassy is try as hard as we can . . . to have closer ties to people, make sure that the symbolism at the embassy is not one of a fortress, and to keep going out," a senior U.S. official recently told foreign journalists in Islamabad. "It's also a gesture to Pakistani people that we're not scared of them."

millergreg@washpost.com brulliardk@washpost.com

Brulliard reported from Islamabad.

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