Lawmakers: Did bin Laden hide in plain sight?
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
WASHINGTON (AP) — Incredulous lawmakers are pressing Pakistan for answers to two simple questions: What did its army and intelligence agents know of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts and when did they know it?
The al-Qaida terrorist leader behind the Sept. 11 attacks lived and died in a massive, fortified compound built in 2005 and located on the outskirts of Abbottabad, some 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad. It stood just a half-mile from the Kakul Military Academy, Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, and close to various army regiments.
Amid the high praise Monday for the successful U.S. military operation, congressional Republicans and Democrats questioned whether bin Laden was hiding in plain sight, with Pakistani military and intelligence operatives either totally unaware of his location or willfully ignoring his presence to protect him.
It was more than a rhetorical question as lawmakers raised the possibility of imposing conditions on the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars that flow to Pakistan, largely economic aid to back an unsteady government.
“I think this tells us once again that, unfortunately, Pakistan at times is playing a double game,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a Senate Armed Services Committee member who indicated that Congress could put limits on funds for Pakistan.
Bin Laden’s death and questions about Pakistan’s eagerness in the fight against terrorism come as the tenuous U.S.-Pakistan relationship seems even more fragile. In recent weeks, CIA contractor Raymond Davis’ killing of two Pakistanis and stepped-up drone attacks have further strained ties between the two countries.
Different factions within Pakistan itself complicate its role as a U.S. ally. What state officials and those in the military may have known about bin Laden could be quite different from what tribes and even families in the region knew or, more to the point, were willing to say about the Abbottabad compound and its occupants.
Early last month, CIA Director Leon Panetta met with Pakistan’s intelligence chief, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, a meeting Washington officials saw as make or break. The Obama administration said it was negotiating a possible reduction in U.S. intelligence operatives and special operations officers in Pakistan as they sought to ease Pakistani concerns about spy activity.
Prior to the raid on the compound, U.S. officials say, they didn’t inform Pakistan of its plans. Unaware and unnerved Pakistanis scrambled their aircraft in the wake of the U.S. military intervention.
Publicly, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton thanked Pakistan for its cooperation and said the country “has contributed greatly to our efforts to dismantle al-Qaida.” She said that “in fact, cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound in which he was hiding.”
John Brennan, White House counterterrorism adviser, said the administration was looking at whether bin Laden had a support system in Pakistan that allowed him to remain in the country.
“We know that the people at the compound there were working on his behalf, and that’s how we ultimately found our way to that compound,” Brennan told reporters at the White House. “We are talking with the Pakistanis on a regular basis now, and we’re going to pursue all leads to find out exactly what type of support system and benefactors that bin Laden might have had.”
Based on the location of the compound and its proximity to army regiments, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Pakistan’s intelligence and army has “got a lot of explaining to do.”
Hours later, Levin acknowledged Clinton’s assessment, but he said he stood by his questions, citing the size of the compound compared with surrounding buildings and the fact that residents took the unusual step of burning all their garbage and avoiding any collection.
“It’s hard to imagine that the military or police did not have any ideas what was going on inside of that,” Levin told reporters in a conference call.
Said Collins, “It is very difficult for me to understand how this huge compound could be built in a city just an hour north of the capital of the Pakistan, in a city that contained military installations, including the Pakistani military academy, and that it did not arouse tremendous suspicions.”
In an essay published Monday by The Washington Post, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari denied suggestions his country’s security forces may have sheltered Osama bin Laden, and said their cooperation with the United States helped pinpoint bin Laden.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., who has traveled extensively to Pakistan and even worked as an intermediary to get Davis released, said candid conversations with the Pakistanis were necessary.
However, Kerry said it would be a mistake to forget “we’ve had people on the ground tracking this. There’s some degree of assistance and cooperation of the Pakistanis.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioned against pushing Pakistan away.
“I’m not the easiest on Pakistan, but the fact is we had a period of time when we had nothing to do with Pakistan and it was not a productive exercise,” McCain said. Pakistan’s nuclear arms would be a direct threat to U.S. national security, he said, if those weapons fell into the wrong hands.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that while Pakistan must be asked about what it knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts, “we have to remember that are still equities that we have in Pakistan as it relates to our national security.“
“It is incredibly important to us to maintain a relationship so we can pursue those targets that we know are posing a threat to the United States,” Rogers said. “So that’s a balance, and we’ll have to work through it.”
Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon and Nahal Toosi in Pakistan and Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.
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