Pakistan media report alleged name of CIA official

Published 10:14 pm Monday, May 9, 2011

Pakistani media have reported a name they allege is that of the CIA station chief in Islamabad — the second such potential outing of a sensitive covert operative in six months, and one that comes with tensions running high over the U.S. raid in Pakistan that killed Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

The Associated Press has learned that the name being reported is incorrect. Nonetheless, the airing of any alleged identity of the U.S. spy agency’s top official in this country could be pushback from Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence establishment, which was humiliated over the surprise raid on its soil, and could further sour relations between Washington and Islamabad.

On Friday, the private TV channel ARY broadcast what it said was the current station chief’s name. The Nation, a right-wing newspaper, picked up the story Saturday.

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ARY’s news director, Mazhar Abbas, said the television station’s reporter gleaned the name from a source. He defended the broadcast, saying it was “based on fact,” and denounced allegations that the name was leaked to the television channel by an official with an agenda.

“The prime responsibility of the reporter is to give a story which is based on facts,” he said. “Interpretation of the story is something else.”

A spokesman for Pakistani intelligence declined to comment. The U.S. Embassy also declined immediate comment Monday. The AP is not publishing the station chief’s name because he is undercover and his identity is classified. It was not immediately clear whether the Americans would pull him out of the country.

Asad Munir, a former intelligence chief with responsibility for Pakistan’s militant-riddled tribal areas, said very few people know the name of the CIA station chief in Islamabad. But he said that releasing it would not necessarily jeopardize the station chief’s safety.

“Normally people in intelligence have cover names,” Munir said. “Only if there is a photograph to identify him could it put his life in danger.”

In December, the CIA pulled its then-station chief out of Pakistan after a name alleged to be his surfaced in public and his safety was deemed at risk. That name hit the local presses after it was mentioned by a lawyer who planned a lawsuit on behalf of victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

Suspicions have lingered that that outing was orchestrated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency to avenge an American lawsuit that named its chief over the 2008 terror attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai. The Pakistani agency denied leaking the CIA operative’s name.

The raid on bin Laden’s compound was an extraordinary blow to what was already a badly faltering relationship in recent months.

Before dawn on May 2, Navy SEALS ferried in high-tech helicopters raided a house in the garrison city of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden had been living for up to six years, killing him and at least four others. The terrorist leader’s body was quickly buried at sea. A wealth of information — ranging from computer thumb drives to videotapes — was seized from the house.

Bin Laden’s location raised suspicions that he had help from some Pakistani authorities, possibly elements of the powerful army and intelligence services. Pakistan’s armed forces have historical — some say ongoing — links with Islamist militants, which they used as proxies in Afghanistan and India.

Islamabad says it was wholly unaware of the impending Navy SEAL attack on the compound, and U.S. officials have backed up that claim. Pakistani authorities also insist they did not know bin Laden was in Abbottabad, and U.S. officials so far have said they see no evidence that anyone in the upper echelons of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment were complicit in hiding the terrorist leader.

But in the days since, Pakistan has lashed out at what it has called a violation of its sovereignty and warned the United States against any such future unilateral strikes on its territory. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was due to speak to parliament on the subject later Monday and expected to hit those same themes.

Ahead of his address, Gilani’s office released a brief statement in which the prime minister is quoted as saying that the Pakistan’s government’s policies have helped maintain law and order and control terrorist activities in the country.

Survivors of the raid, including children, are in Pakistani custody. The U.S. says it wants access to bin Laden’s three widows and any intelligence material its commandos left behind at the al-Qaida leader’s compound.

Suspicions of Pakistani collusion with militants pose an acute problem for the Obama administration because few can see any alternative but to continue engaging the Muslim-majority country. Unstable and nuclear-armed, it remains integral to the fight against al-Qaida as well as to American hopes for beginning to draw down troops in Afghanistan later this year.