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New York Times report: Pakistani officials knew about bin Laden’s whereabouts

March 23, 2014 at 7:04 PM EDT
A story in the New York Times this week by reporter Carlotta Gall suggests Pakistan did not fully cooperate with American efforts to track down Osama bin Laden. Were senior Pakistani officials aware of bin Laden’s presence in the country? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Dan Markey, of the Council on Foreign Relations, about what the Pakistani Intelligence Service might have known about bin Laden

HARI SREENIVASAN: A story this week in the New York Times suggests Pakistan failed to cooperate with American efforts to track down Osama bin Laden, even though that country receives billions in American aid. The report alleges that senior Pakistani officials knew all about bin Laden’s presence in the years before American commandos raided his compound there and killed him. The story is so sensitive that the distributors of the international version of the newspaper in Pakistan blanked it out even though it was supposed to be displayed on the top of the front page. The article is adapted from a book by reporter Carlotta Gall being published next month. She’ll be doing interviews about the book then, but because her piece today is so newsworthy we asked Dan Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, to join us tonight to talk about it. He’s the author of No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad. He joins us now from Washington. So one of the things that’s really striking to me is something that Carlotta Gall said, that essentially Pakistan or the secret service there had a desk to protect Osama bin Laden.

DAN MARKEY: Yeah that’s right. She talks about how there was apparently at least one, if not several, members of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, who were assigned to basically watch bin Laden — presumably to help hide him. And these individuals, she believes, reported directly to the senior members of the Pakistani intelligence and military services. she gets this from a conversation that she says she had with a senior Pakistani officer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Okay and explain to an American audience how the ISI works. Is it like the FBI versus the local sheriff’s department? Oor how are they integrated in Pakistani society?

DAN MARKEY: Well, the ISI is kind of like a combination of our FBI and CIA, and beyond that our DIA or Defense Intelligence Agency altogether. It reports actually through a military chain, but technically of course the Pakistani military reports to the civilians. ISI has been very powerful for decades, and it’s operated both in foreign affairs, that is Pakistan’s business in Afghanistan or India or elsewhere, but also at home. And it’s also been accused of manipulating politics inside of Pakistan itself. Very powerful, very secretive, lots of resources and often times reporting to the most powerful individuals in the country, those being the military officers at the top of the army.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So that said, would the top of the army or the top of the government have known about this program to protect bin Laden?

DAN MARKEY: Well that’s what Carlotta Gall is saying, on the basis at least of this conversation that she had with a Pakistani official who is unnamed. And on the basis of more circumstantial evidence, that is, it really is hard to believe that somebody as significant as bin Laden could be hidden for six years in what seems to be a safe house not far from one of Pakistan’s major military academies without someone knowing about it. So she works off of that, some other circumstantial evidence, that is she tried to have conversations with U.S. officials, some of whom seemed to suggest that they weren’t all that surprised about what she had heard, but she didn’t get confirmation on the U.S. side and some are questioning whether a single Pakistani unnamed source qualifies as enough for this kind of a blockbuster story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, she also paints a picture of a country divided in its loyalties. On the one hand trying to fight the Taliban, on the other hand trying to aid portions of the Taliban or al-Qaida.

DAN MARKEY: Yeah that’s what’s confusing about a lot of this, and of course you know if the Pakistani state were protecting Osama bin Laden and helping al-Qaida, that may be, but at the same time the Pakistani state has been a target of al-Qaida. U.S. officials believe that President Musharraf, who was in power much of the time after 9/11, was directly attacked by al-Qaida. Other civilian officials have been attacked by al-Qaida. There’s a belief that al-Qaida was involved in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, one of Pakistan’s former prime ministers. So there are layers of complexity here and one of the really deep problems that we very certainly have with Pakistan is it seems the Pakistani military and intelligence have tried to divide up their enemies. Some of them they go after very clearly and others of whom they try to make deals with or look the other way on or maybe even collude with. And that’s what the story is linked to at this route.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Dan Markey joining us from Washington. Thanks so much.

DAN MARKEY: Thank you.