A breach that sent the CIA’s top spy in Pakistan out of the country with his cover blown is likely to cause friction between U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agents, who have worked closely, if not always with mutual trust, in the battle against insurgents along the volatile border with Afghanistan.
Experts say that although the harm the episode has done to the relationship isn’t irreparable, it will breed mistrust between the two sides at precisely the time Washington is urging Islamabad to shoulder a bigger responsibility in the war on terrorism.
U.S. officials suspect Pakistan’s intelligence community, which has long been plagued by divided allegiances, in the disclosure of the identity of the CIA station chief in Islamabad, the capital.
Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, has denied any role in the breach. A Pakistani intelligence source said the agency did not know the source of the disclosure.
“That’s a mystery we have not been able to solve,” the source said.
The CIA agent’s name was first made public by Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar and his client, Karim Khan, at a Nov. 29 news conference to announce their intent to sue the United States over the deaths of Khan’s son, brother and another man in an American drone missile strike Dec. 31, 2009, in the tribal region of North Waziristan.
Subsequently, the agent’s name was widely disseminated in Pakistani newspapers and television newscasts. Akbar said he obtained the agent’s name from two Pakistani journalists, whose identities he would not disclose. He did not know how the journalists learned of the agent’s identity. However, the ISI maintains strong bonds with certain Pakistani journalists and commentators, and often uses them to influence coverage or spin their version of events.
U.S. suspicions immediately fell on the ISI. A possible motive may have been retaliation for a lawsuit filed in New York last month that named the ISI’s chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, as a defendant and accused his agency of supporting the militants who carried out the attacks in Mumbai, India, in 2008 that killed about 170 people. The lawsuit was filed by relatives of two American victims of the attack.
Experts said some ISI operatives are sympathetic to the cause of Afghan Taliban militants battling U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and could have been willing to “out” the CIA station chief.
The subject of Khan’s lawsuit against the U.S. — drone missile strikes that target militants but sometimes kill civilians in the tribal areas — is an extremely sensitive topic for most Pakistanis, who regard the drone campaign as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
“There may be elements within the Pakistani intelligence community who still have sympathies for [militants] in the tribal areas, especially Pashtun officers,” said Javed Hussain, a retired Pakistani special forces commander and now a security analyst, adding that some of those officers have ties with Taliban militants that date to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. “It’s hard to tell these officers, ‘OK, switch off.’”
Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said what makes the disclosure of the agent’s identity especially problematic is that it is the latest in a series of events that have ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Islamabad.
The U.S. has been working to mend ties with Pakistan after a U.S. helicopter missile strike Sept. 30 that mistakenly killed three Pakistani soldiers near the border with Afghanistan.
In retaliation, Pakistan shut down the border crossing used by convoys supplying North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan, and scores of those trucks were later set ablaze by militants in Pakistan, often at truck stops where Pakistani police provided little, if any, security.
“There is continuous tension that builds up because of these incidents, and that’s not good,” Masood said. “We want relations based on mutual confidence, and this is lacking. There are too many small incidents that are creating, if not a rupture in relations, certainly significant problems. And this can only be of benefit to the militants.”