ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Amid growing U.S. and Pakistani suspicions, Pakistan’s prime minister on Monday dismissed as “absurd” U.S. allegations that the nation’s powerful military was “complicit or incompetent” in the case of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader who was killed a week ago by U.S. Navy SEALs in a compound 35 air miles from Pakistan’s capital.
Even as Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani spoke, however, some U.S. officials expressed anger that once again the name of the top U.S. spy in Pakistan had been disclosed by Pakistani news organizations in what some say might have been retaliation for the raid.
In his first address to parliament since bin Laden’s death, Gilani said a three-star general would lead an inquiry into the “how, when and why” of bin Laden’s years-long stay in Abbottabad, home to Pakistan’s most prestigious military academy and the headquarters of two Pakistan army regiments.
But he left it clear that he did not expect the investigation would find that the military or Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, had conspired to keep bin Laden’s presence a secret.
“It is disingenuous for anyone to blame Pakistan or state institutions of Pakistan, including the ISI and the armed forces, for being in cahoots with the al-Qaida,” Gilani said. “It was al-Qaida and its affiliates that carried out hundreds of suicide bombings in nearly every town and city of Pakistan and also targeted political leaders, state institutions, the ISI and the General Head quarters” of the military.
Whether the results of the investigation will be made public wasn’t clear, but past inquiries by the military have been kept secret. So far, no officials have been fired over the episode, and few expect senior heads to roll.
Since the May 2 raid on the Abbottabad compound, Pakistani authorities have said little about bin Laden in the face of intense speculation that the armed forces or the ISI must have played a role in keeping him hidden.
In an interview Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” President Barack Obama said bin Laden must have had a “support network” in Pakistan, though U.S. officials have said they have yet to find any evidence tying the Pakistani government to bin Laden.
CIA Director Leon Panetta reportedly told members of Congress in Washington last week that the Pakistani government either knew of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad or was incompetent because it was unaware of it.
The U.S. didn’t inform the ISI or the Pakistan army in advance of the raid out of concern that Islamist elements might tip off bin Laden, angering the country’s top generals.
Retaliating for that slight might be one reason the name of the CIA station chief in Islamabad was broadcast Friday by ARY, a television channel, and published the next day in The Nation, a right-wing daily, one U.S. official said.
“We suspect it’s retaliation,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “That’s certainly one of the most plausible explanations for it.”
But a Pentagon official said he was uncertain that the leak was the work of Pakistan’s military or intelligence service.
U.S. officials long have charged that ISI and Pakistani army officers secretly have patronized Islamic militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban and other al Qaida-allied organizations fighting U.S.-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan vehemently denies the allegation.
The U.S. official declined to confirm the accuracy of the station chief’s name.
It’s the second time in five months that the name of the top U.S. intelligence officer in Pakistan has been made public, although this time, the station chief will not be ordered home like the last time, the U.S. official said.
Gilani noted that Pakistan has suffered from al-Qaida attacks since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. He said that more than 5,000 Pakistani soldiers and 30,000 civilians had died in the “war on terror” and that the ISI had captured 40 top al-Qaida operatives, including the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the man who succeeded him as al-Qaida’s operations chief, Abu Faraj al Libi. Both men are imprisoned at the U.S. detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Libi told U.S. interrogators that he, too, had lived for a year in Abbottabad in 2003 and 2004, according to intelligence files obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy Newspapers.
“Allegations of complicity or incompetence are absurd,” Gilani said.
“The obvious question that has vexed everyone is how could Osama bin Laden hide in plain sight in the scenic surroundings of Abbottabad. Let’s not rush to judgment,” Gilani said. “We will not allow our detractors to succeed in offloading their own shortcomings and errors of omission and commission in a blame game that stigmatizes Pakistan.”
That reference appeared to be aimed at U.S. intelligence analysts’ long-stated belief that bin Laden was most likely hiding in Pakistan’s wild tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan. The failure to find bin Laden until now in Abbottabad, a resort town filled with Pakistani military personnel, is “not only ours, but of all the intelligence agencies of the world,” Gilani said.
Significantly, Gilani’s 24-minute presentation was in English, obviously aimed at an international audience.
According to Pakistani security officials, one of bin Laden’s three wives, who were taken into custody after the raid, has said the terrorist leader lived in Abbottabad for at least five years. Interviews with neighbors indicate that bin Laden, his wives and their children never left the compound.
The Obama administration hopes that Pakistan will soon allow U.S. officials to interview bin Laden’s wives, said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“The U.S. government expects to get access to the wives very soon,” the official said.
The official was unsure who would conduct the interview, but added that it likely would be a U.S. team that included diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence officials.