Tension rises as US seeks answers from Pakistan
Some members of Congress want to cut aid
WASHINGTON — Tensions between the US and Pakistani governments intensified yesterday as senior Obama administration officials demanded answers to how Osama bin Laden managed to hide in Pakistan, and the Pakistani government issued a defiant statement calling the raid that killed the Al Qaeda leader “an unauthorized unilateral action.’’
John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, said there were many questions about how the sprawling compound “was able to be there for so many years with bin Laden resident there and it didn’t come to the attention of the local authorities.
“We need to understand what sort of support network that bin Laden might have had in place,’’ Brennan said during an interview with ABC yesterday.
The suspicions have intensified efforts by some members of Congress to scale back US aid to Pakistan, or cut it entirely, as lawmakers described Pakistan as a duplicitous ally undeserving of the billions of dollars it receives each year from Washington.
Still, Obama administration officials and some members of Congress seemed determined to avoid the kind of break in relations that would jeopardize the counterterrorism network the CIA has carefully constructed over the past few years in Pakistan, and as the administration tries to end the war in Afghanistan, a conflict where Pakistan is a necessary, if difficult, partner.
On Monday, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan landed in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and delivered what US officials described as a stern message to senior Pakistani military and intelligence leaders. The envoy, Marc Grossman, told them that patience in Congress was wearing thin, officials familiar with the discussions said.
Officials in Washington said that they hoped to learn far more about the network that bin Laden tapped for support by examining the trove of computer files and documents that the Navy SEALs grabbed during Monday’s raid.
Top Pakistani officials have denied that Islamabad tried to harbor bin Laden, and US officials said at this point there was no hard evidence that any Pakistani officials visited the compound in Abbottabad, or had any direct contacts with bin Laden. Even as they pledged support for the United States’ deeply strained alliance with Pakistan, several top US officials said it was difficult to believe bin Laden could have spent years in a town populated by current and former Pakistani military officers — with a Pakistani military academy close by — without the complicity of some in the country’s government.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, acknowledged she had no evidence that Pakistan’s government knew where bin Laden was hiding, but that the government had much to answer for.
A civilian official in the Pakistani government said he did not know if the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence helped bin Laden hide or was simply unaware of his presence in Abbottabad. Either way, he said, the US raid was an international humiliation for the agency.
In his meetings in Islamabad, Grossman told Pakistani leaders they needed to take steps to stanch the tide of anger in Washington about Pakistan’s behavior, according to Obama administration officials familiar with the meetings.
In public, Grossman was more diplomatic, telling reporters in Islamabad yesterday that the United States was committed to its alliance with Pakistan and that Pakistan was “determined to curb terrorism.’’
A senior Pakistani general yesterday repeated his government’s formal denials that the military or the ISI knew of bin Laden’s location. Instead, he acknowledged a major intelligence lapse by the Pakistani police and security forces.
“To me, it’s a big embarrassment,’’ said the Pakistani officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The general said Pakistan and the United States had cooperated in other counterterrorism operations in the Abbottabad area in recent weeks, notably a CIA tip that led to Pakistan’s recent arrest of Umar Patek, one of the main Indonesian suspects in the 2002 Bali bombing.
The Pakistani government statement went further, saying that the ISI had “been sharing information with CIA and other friendly intelligence agencies’’ about the bin Laden compound since 2009.
Several US officials said they were puzzled about the statement, pointing out the CIA did not know about the compound until August 2010.
The raid has fueled anti-Pakistan sentiment in Congress, yet it is unclear — perhaps even unlikely — that there would be enough support to cut aid to Pakistan.
House Speaker John Boehner, who just returned from a congressional visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said any discussion about cutting aid or decreasing engagement with Pakistan in the aftermath of the bin Laden strike was premature and that he would strongly oppose any such move.
“We both benefit from having a strong bilateral relationship, and I think we need to use this moment to strengthen the ties between our two countries,’’ Boehner told reporters.
“This is not a time to back away from Pakistan. I think we need more engagement, not less.’’
Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the majority leader, also expressed reluctance about limiting aid to Pakistan, saying the country has been an anti-terror partner of the United States.
“They’ve lost thousands and thousands of their soldiers fighting terrorists,’’ he said. “Now, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have more oversight, and I’m willing to do that.’’