The Obama administration is asking Pakistan to allow the United States to interview Osama bin Laden’s three wives — who are in Pakistani custody — and to analyze materials seized in his compound by Pakistani authorities.
The requests, made public Sunday by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, represent a key test of severely strained U.S.-Pakistani relations after the raid on bin Laden’s compound in the early hours of May 2.
Already, Pakistani leaders have warned the United States about conducting any more raids like the mission that killed bin Laden in his Abbottabad compound.
In the meantime, several Pakistani television stations named a man they identified as the CIA station chief in Islamabad, a significant breach if the name was leaked by the CIA’s counterpart in Pakistan. A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the matter Sunday.
When asked by CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday whether the Pakistanis would allow access to bin Laden’s wives and intelligence officers who may have been in contact with bin Laden, Mr. Donilon said, “That’s very important. And we have asked for access both to the people, including three wives who they now have in custody from the compound, as well as additional materials that they took from the compound that can be used for intelligence analysis.”
President Obama on CBS’ “60 Minutes” said the United States did not know how many Pakistani government officials were part of a network that sustained bin Laden in Abbottabad, the site of a prestigious Pakistani military academy less than an hour’s drive from Islamabad.
“We think that there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan,” Mr. Obama said. “But we don’t know who or what that support network was. We don’t know whether there might have been some people inside of government, people outside of government, and that’s something that we have to investigate and, more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate.”
In his interviews Sunday, Mr. Donilon said he had no information implicating the “political, military or intelligence leadership in Pakistan,” as he put it to ABC News, in supporting bin Laden.
Still, U.S. intelligence officials said they found scores of phone numbers, emails, courier messages and other means of communication between bin Laden and people suspected to be officers in Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Politico first reported last week that bin Laden had two numbers sewn into his clothing when he was discovered by the Navy SEAL team that killed him.
The raid on the bin Laden compound and its aftermath highlight a dilemma at the heart of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. While Pakistan’s leadership has been closely allied with the United States, the country’s network of current and retired military and intelligence officers appears to be more closely aligned with al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
A Feb. 19, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad disclosed last week by WikiLeaks says Pakistan’s military and ISI have given overt and tacit support to Pakistan-based jihadist groups, including the network of Maulvi Haqqani, a former Pakistani military commander who was closely allied to the U.S.-supported effort to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s. His network now has become one of the fiercest foes of the coalition in Afghanistan.
In some ways, the standoff over interviewing suspects in Pakistan is a replay of the tense battle over A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who sold centrifuges and other nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
The George W. Bush administration pressed Pervez Musharraf, who was Pakistan’s president, for access to the nuclear scientist and father of Pakistan’s nuclear program. But the Pakistanis refused, placing Mr. Khan under house arrest at first. He was released from custody in 2009 shortly after President Obama came to office.
On ABC’s “This Week,” Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, would not say whether Pakistan would allow the United States to interview bin Laden’s wives or give it access to the material from the compound that is now in Pakistani hands.
He did say, however, that “heads would roll” if Pakistani officials were found to have been working with terrorists and that his government was “comforted” that bin Laden is dead.
When asked about provocative comments from Pakistan’s military leaders vowing not to allow further U.S. raids into Pakistan, Mr. Haqqani said, “What we are offended by is the violation of our sovereignty.”
“Now, we’ve heard the American explanation, but at the same time, try and put yourself in the position of a Pakistani leader who has to go to and hear from the same people who turn around and say, ‘You know what, you can’t protect this country from American helicopters coming in.’ America has a selling job to do in Pakistan to convince more Pakistanis that you are … our ally and, therefore, there will be less offense.”