- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2011

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — The U.S. ambassador to Islamabad phoned Washington with an urgent plea: Stop an imminent CIA drone strike against militants on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border.

He feared the timing of the attack would further damage ties with Islamabad, coming only a day after the government grudgingly freed a CIA contractor held for weeks in the killing of two Pakistanis.

Ambassador Cameron Munter’s rare request — disclosed to the Associated Press by several U.S. officials — was forwarded to the head of the CIA, who dismissed it.

Some U.S. officials said then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta’s decision was driven by a belief that the militants being targeted were too important to pass up. But others suspected that anger at Pakistan for imprisoning CIA contractor Raymond Davis for so long played a role.

The deadly March 17 attack, which the Pakistanis claim killed 38 civilians, helped send the U.S.-Pakistan relationship into a tailspin from which it has not recovered.

The timing of the strike — and others that followed — outraged Pakistani officials, complicating U.S. efforts to win Pakistani cooperation on the Afghan war and retain support for the drone program.

Newly revealed details of the drone strikes were provided by U.S. and Pakistani officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the program.

Among them were attacks that followed an April visit by Pakistan’s spy chief to Washington as well as trips here by Sen. John F. Kerry and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani military town on May 2.

The latest strike occurred Tuesday while the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Marc Grossman, was visiting Islamabad.

Seven years into a secret program that has killed scores of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, there are increasing questions over whether it is worth the diplomatic backlash in Pakistan.

President Obama has dramatically ramped up the program, unleashing more than 200 strikes since he took office, compared with fewer than 50 during the George W. Bush administration.

The Pakistani government is widely believed to have supported the program in the past and even allowed the drones to take off from bases inside Pakistan, but that support has waned as relations between the two countries have soured.

The attacks also have strained the relationship between the State Department and the CIA, where officials argue that killing militants who threaten U.S. interests should take priority over political considerations, U.S. officials said.

That tension was clearly visible between Mr. Munter and the CIA station chief in Islamabad, who recently left his post because of illness, said a senior Western official in the region.

“When the doors are closed, they are shouting at each other, but once the doors are open, they are congenial in front of the embassy staff,” the official said.

The hard-charging station chief also clashed with the head of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the ISI, over drone strikes, a Pakistani official said.

The CIA does not comment on the drone program.

A U.S. official familiar with the issue played down the tension.

“It is very, very rare for the chief of mission to express concern about any particular operation,” the official said, referring to the ambassador. “When concerns are raised, they’re always given close consideration.”

Mr. Munter must sign off on every planned drone attack in Pakistan, though he rarely voices an objection, a former aide to the ambassador said. If Mr. Munter disagrees with a planned strike, the CIA director can appeal to him, two U.S. officials said, providing the most detailed description of the process to date.

Mrs. Clinton also can weigh in, and has done so at least once, one U.S. official said.

On March 17, Mr. Munter used the embassy’s secure line in an attempt to stop an imminent drone strike. His concern was that the strike — a day after the release of Mr. Davis — would set back Washington’s already shaky relations with Islamabad, the former aide and a senior U.S. official said.

The Davis case had left bad feelings on both sides. On Jan. 27 in Lahore, Mr. Davis fatally shot two Pakistanis who he said were trying to rob him, enraging many people in a country where anti-American sentiment is high.

The U.S. insisted Mr. Davis had immunity from prosecution, but he was not released until March 16 under a deal that compensated the victims’ families. Pakistan’s security agencies came under intense domestic criticism for freeing him.

Mr. Munter’s strike-call-off request went to the State Department and was forwarded to Mr. Panetta, now secretary of defense, who insisted on going ahead, the officials said.

It is unclear whether Mrs. Clinton was involved in the decision.

The former aide said the strike reflected the CIA’s upset with the ISI, which it blamed for keeping Mr. Davis in prison for seven weeks.

“It was in retaliation for Davis,” the aide said. “The CIA was angry.”

A U.S. official said all decisions on strikes are driven only by intelligence. That official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.

The CIA also believed it was vital to kill the militants targeted in the strike in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan, the senior U.S. official said. But other U.S. officials agreed with Mr. Munter that it wasn’t worth the political blowback, the official said.

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