- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is disappointed and suspicious that militants in Pakistan apparently were tipped off that American intelligence officials had discovered two of their suspected bomb-making facilities, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday.

But he stopped short of concluding that Pakistani officials leaked the information to the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani insurgents, and he said such incidents must not derail U.S. relations with Islamabad.

A little over two weeks before ending his 4½-year tenure as Pentagon chief, Mr. Gates sat down in his office Monday for an Associated Press interview that touched on a range of issues, including his expectation of a smooth handoff to his designated successor, current CIA Director Leon E. Panetta. Mr. Gates will retire June 30; Mr. Panetta’s Senate confirmation is expected shortly.

The Pakistan intelligence breach has only fueled unease in the United States, where officials worry about links between the intelligence service there and some militant groups.

A U.S. official said Monday that after telling Pakistani intelligence about the location of the two compounds, U.S. drones and satellite feeds showed the militants clearing out the contents at both sites.

“We don’t know the specifics of what happened,” Mr. Gates said. “There are suspicions and there are questions, but I think there was clearly disappointment on our part.”

As an act of faith to restore relations with Pakistan, U.S. intelligence in recent weeks shared the location of two such compounds believed to contain bomb material held by the Haqqani network. But by the time Pakistani authorities reached the facilities, they had been vacated.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters, said the assumption was that the Pakistanis had tipped off the Haqqanis.

Asked whether it was time to take a harder line with Pakistan, Mr. Gates counseled patience and noted that the Pakistanis have not forgotten that the United States abandoned them in the late 1980s after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan.

“We need each other, and this relationship goes beyond Afghanistan,” he said. “It has to do with regional stability, and I think we have to be realistic about Pakistani distrust … and their deep belief that, when we’re done with al Qaeda, that we’ll be gone again.”

Despite recurring tensions between Washington and Islamabad, and questions by some in Congress about the wisdom of having spent billions of dollars on aiding Pakistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Mr. Gates said the effort has paid off.

On other topics, Mr. Gates said he sees no roadblocks to ending the ban on openly gay military service, and if the top officers of each service recommend moving ahead on the repeal before the end of the month, he will endorse it.

More than a million U.S. troops have been trained on the new law that repealed the 17-year-old ban on gays serving openly in the armed services, and Mr. Gates said the instruction has gone well.

“I think people are pretty satisfied with the way this process is going forward,” he said. “I think people have been mildly and pleasantly surprised at the lack of pushback in the training.”

Still, he noted that decades after women entered military service, there are still persistent problems with sexual assaults, so the notion that there will be no ugly incidents when the ban is lifted is “unrealistic,” he said.

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