Report of CIA informant arrests another blow to Pakistan's military

Already beset by unprecedented criticism, Pakistan's military now tries to head off reports that an Army major was arrested for informing the CIA of activities on the bin Laden compound.

Aqeel Ahmed/AP
A police vehicle patrols a street on Wednesday, June 15, near to the house where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The Pakistani army denied that one of its majors was among a group of Pakistanis who Western officials say were arrested for feeding the CIA information before the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

A report alleging that a Pakistani Army major was among five CIA informers arrested for gathering intelligence on Osama bin Laden's compound could further harm the Army’s image, which is facing a rising backlash at home.

“If a serving officer was reporting to the CIA instead of his own officers, that would be a great breach of discipline,” says security analyst and retired Gen. Talat Masood.

According to the New York Times, an Army major provided information such as license plate numbers of vehicles entering the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad prior to the raid. The Army tersely refuted the report on Wednesday, stating: “There is no army officer detained and the story is false and totally baseless” in a press release.

But that statement could mean that the officer in question was retired, says Masood. An Abbottabad resident who asked to remain unnamed because of the sensitivity of the situation told the Monitor that four civilians and one retired Army major were arrested.

A Pakistani newspaper editor who also asked to remain unnamed told the Monitor that a senior civil administrator from Abbottabad also confirmed the arrests and said they took place in a house owned by an Army major.

Unprecedented criticism amid a series of setbacks

The reported arrests are the latest in a series of major setbacks to the Army’s public image, which have brought about calls for greater civilian oversight over military and intelligence affairs.

These began in early May following the bin Laden affair, which raised questions over the intelligence failure and the Army’s ability to protect its sovereignty, and is being investigated by a parliamentary commission.

The Army is also currently investigating naval officers’ ties with Al Qaeda in the aftermath of an audacious attack on the Mehran Naval base in Karachi last month, which resulted in the loss of 18 lives and the destruction of two US-made P-3C Orion aircraft. The scope and nature of the attack have led many to speculate that it could not have been carried out without insider help.

“The Pakistan military is looking inward and trying to deal with this phenomenon of the insider threat. So these arrests [of CIA informers] represent that particular trend,” says Rifaat Hussain, a defense analyst at Quaid-i-Azam university in Islamabad. Maintaining “external ties” are forbidden for soldiers the world over, he adds.

In addition to public disapproval, the Army and intelligence services are also facing criticism from the media that is reaching levels unprecedented in Pakistan's history. Among other criticisms, the media has condemned both a lack of competence and of accountability.

Journalist Saleem Shahzad, who was investigating the naval base attack, was killed in May in an unsolved murder after telling a human rights activist that he had been threatened by intelligence agents. Last week, an unarmed man was shot dead by paramilitary Rangers in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi. On Wednesday, hundreds of journalists gathered outside Pakistan’s parliament in Islamabad to protest the killings.

Increased tensions between Pakistan, CIA

According to Dr. Hussain of Quaid-i-Azam university, the arrests also highlight the depth to which relations between the CIA and ISI have plunged as they attempt to create “new terms of engagement” in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid and the Raymond Davis affair. Mr. Davis, a CIA operative, was captured and subsequently released after fatally shooting two Pakistanis in unclear circumstances in January.

An ISI official told the Monitor that joint US-Pakistani counterterror operations have stopped completely in the aftermath of the Davis incident, from an average of 10 per month in the 18 months leading up to that event.

Last week US Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed disappointment over a failed raid against two bombmaking factories in Pakistan's North Waziristan region. Militants from the Haqqani network were apparently tipped off after American officials briefed their Pakistani counterparts and asked them to carry out the raid.

On Tuesday a Congressional panel deemed that 75 percent of a $1.1 billion military aid package for Pakistan be withheld until President Obama reports on how the money will be spent.

Such moves are likely to deepen Pakistani suspicions toward the US, says Hussain. Pakistani authorities remain wary over the “American footprint” in Pakistan, adds Hussain. He cites the Pakistanis' decision to ask America to send back a large contingent of US Special Forces who were sent to Pakistan’s Tribal Areas on training missions as well as requests for the CIA to reduce its presence, which the US believes will undermine efforts to carry out counter-terror operations.

Ben Arnoldy contributed reporting.

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