CIA recalls Pakistan station chief after his name becomes public
The CIA station chief in Pakistan has been called home, a U.S. official said, after a lawyer for a local journalist publicly revealed the officer’s name and said he should be held accountable for the deaths of the client’s relatives in a U.S. drone strike.
FOR THE RECORD: An article in the Dec. 18 Section A on the removal of the CIA station chief from Pakistan said that Jeffrey Castelli, the former CIA station chief in Rome, was one of 23 Americans convicted by an Italian court in connection with the “extraordinary rendition” of an Egyptian cleric to Egypt in 2003. Castelli was acquitted after judges ruled that he was operating under diplomatic immunity. The same article identified Robert Seldon Lady as the Milan station chief. He was Milan base chief.
The development is likely to worsen the mistrust roiling Washington’s fragile alliance with Islamabad, which is central to its military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan and the struggle against Islamic militants.
Pakistani journalist Karim Khan filed a police complaint Monday alleging that his brother and son were killed when a missile fired from a CIA drone hit their home in North Waziristan in December 2009. The complaint and a separate notice to the U.S. Embassy of his intent to sue identified a person they claimed was the CIA station chief in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
Khan said his two relatives were teachers and that they did not have any connection to Islamic militants, who are the targets of covert U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. His lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, said Friday that he obtained the CIA officer’s name from two Pakistani newspaper reporters, and included it in the lawsuit because he believed the man should be punished for civilian deaths caused by the drone strikes.
“He should be arrested and executed in this country,” Khan said outside an Islamabad police station, according to news reports.
Although Akbar refused to identify the reporters, suspicions about the source of the information fell on Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI. The ISI historically has maintained strong ties with certain Pakistani journalists, who have published information aimed at bolstering the agency’s interests.
Pakistani intelligence sources denied involvement.
The agency’s relationship with the U.S. has been rocky in recent years. It cooperates with Washington by providing intelligence that helps the CIA target Taliban and Al Qaeda militants. But the U.S. suspects elements in the ISI of providing support to Afghan Taliban militants and commanders who attack U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
New U.S. intelligence reports say Pakistan has proved unwilling to stop its clandestine support of militants who mount attacks from the tribal areas. And according to military and State Department documents disclosed this year by the WikiLeaks website, U.S. intelligence suggests that elements of the ISI are continuing to arm, train and fund militants.
The CIA station chief’s departure “is understandable, because once his name is out, his utility is over,” said a Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The officer, whose name remains classified, is returning to the U.S. because “terrorist threats against him in Pakistan were of such a serious nature that it would be imprudent not to act,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a sensitive personnel matter.
CIA spokesman George Little declined to address the matter directly, but said, “Our station chiefs routinely encounter major risk as they work to keep America safe … their security is obviously a top priority for the CIA, especially when there’s an imminent threat.”
Khan says his son and brother were killed by a drone strike in North Waziristan on Dec. 31. The number of drone strikes in North Waziristan has risen steeply in the last year as the U.S. targets refuges of the Haqqani network, a wing of the Afghan Taliban regarded as one of the biggest threats against American and allied forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on a surprise visit Friday to Kabul, the Afghan capital, that U.S. officials had begun to speak bluntly to Pakistani officials, including army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, about the need to attack militants in areas such as North Waziristan.
“To make the kind of progress we need to make in Afghanistan, progress in Pakistan is critical,” Mullen said.
Akbar and Khan held a news conference in Islamabad on Nov. 29. Front-page articles in Pakistani newspapers and television newscasts publicized the CIA officer’s name the next day. When Khan and other protesters marched to the parliament building Dec. 9 and held a sit-in against U.S. drone strikes, several demonstrators held up posters with the officer’s name printed in large black letters.
One Pakistani newspaper claimed the agent entered the country on a business visa without diplomatic immunity. CIA officers sometimes pose as diplomats, in which case they usually cannot be prosecuted. In other cases they operate under “nonofficial cover,” which exposes them to foreign legal action.
Though U.S. officials sometimes speak privately about the drone program in general, they tend not to discuss individual strikes. U.S. officials have acknowledged noncombatant deaths through drone strikes but say they are extremely rare.
Other groups challenge the U.S. count and say that as many as a third of the people killed in the strikes are not militants.
The government of Pakistan cooperates with the strikes, even though it sometimes denounces them to the public.
It has been a record year for drone strikes in Pakistan, with 113 so far, up from 53 last year and 34 in 2008, according to the New America Foundation. On Friday, U.S. missiles struck compounds in Pakistan’s Khyber district, killing 54 alleged militants, according to news reports citing Pakistani officials.
The CIA post of Pakistan station chief is a crucial one because that station is the epicenter of the spy agency’s program to attack militants with missiles fired from unmanned aerial drones. John D. Bennett, who in July was named to head the National Clandestine Service, the CIA’s operations arm, had previously served as Islamabad station chief.
The outing of a station chief is rare but not without precedent.
Last year, an Italian prosecutor won convictions in absentia of 23 Americans, all but one allegedly CIA officers, in connection with the “extraordinary rendition” of an Egyptian cleric from Milan to Egypt in 2003. The cleric says he was tortured by the Egyptians. Among those convicted were former Rome station chief Jeffrey Castelli and former Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, whose names became public as a result of the court case.
Dilanian reported from Washington and Rodriguez from Islamabad. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Kabul contributed to this report.