WASHINGTON — Congress may consider cutting the almost $1.3 billion in annual aid to Pakistan if it turns out the Islamabad government knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee said today.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she wants more details from CIA Director Leon Panetta and others about the Pakistani government’s role. Feinstein spoke to reporters about the raid that killed bin Laden early Monday and the questions raised by his hiding place deep inside Pakistan.
The No. 2 House Democratic leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said if Pakistan doesn’t ease doubts about its dedication to fighting terrorists, Congress should explore whether it makes sense to reduce U.S. aid to that country.
“I don’t know whether it would be effective or counterproductive, we’ll have to look at that,” he told reporters, adding, “It needs to be looked into.”
Incredulous lawmakers are pressing Pakistan for answers to two simple questions: What did its army and intelligence agents know of bin Laden’s whereabouts and when did they know it?
The al-Qaida terrorist leader behind the Sept. 11 attacks lived and died in a massive, fortified compound built in 2005 and located on the outskirts of Abbottabad, miles from the capital of Islamabad. It stood just a half-mile from the Kakul Military Academy, Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, and close to various army regiments.
Amid the high praise for the successful U.S. military operation, congressional Republicans and Democrats questioned whether bin Laden was hiding in plain sight, with Pakistani military and intelligence operatives either totally unaware of his location or willfully ignoring his presence to protect him.
“I think this tells us once again that, unfortunately, Pakistan at times is playing a double game,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a Senate Armed Services Committee member who indicated that Congress could put limits on funds for Pakistan.
But another GOP member of the panel dismissed that idea.
“For those who want to cut off aid to Pakistan, I understand your frustration,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “But at the end of the day, if you want to create a failed state in Pakistan, one of the best things to do is sever relationships. It is not in our national security interest to let this one event destroy what is a difficult partnership but a partnership nonetheless.”
The Obama administration pushed back on talk of punishing Pakistan.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. is committed to cooperating with Pakistan despite questions about who in the Islamabad government may have known that bin Laden was in hiding in his compound in Abbottabad.
“We don’t know who if anybody in the government was aware that bin Laden or a high-value target was living in the compound. It’s logical to assume he had a supporting network. What constituted that network remains to be seen,” Carney said. “It’s a big country and a big government and we have to be very focused and careful about how we do this because it is an important relationship.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. aid “is in both Pakistan’s long-term interests as well as the United States’ national interests and security interests.”
Bin Laden’s death and questions about Pakistan’s eagerness in the fight against terrorism come as the tenuous U.S.-Pakistan relationship seems even more fragile. In recent weeks, CIA contractor Raymond Davis’ killing of two Pakistanis and stepped-up drone attacks have further strained ties between the two countries.
Different factions within Pakistan itself complicate its role as a U.S. ally. What state officials and those in the military may have known about bin Laden could be quite different from what tribes and even families in the region knew or, more to the point, were willing to say about the Abbottabad compound and its occupants.
A frustrated Pakistan called the U.S. raid to get bin Laden an “unauthorized unilateral action” that “cannot be taken as a rule.”
Early last month, CIA Director Leon Panetta met with Pakistan’s intelligence chief, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, a meeting Washington officials saw as make or break. The Obama administration said it was negotiating a possible reduction in U.S. intelligence operatives and special operations officers in Pakistan as they sought to ease Pakistani concerns about spy activity.
Prior to the raid on the compound, U.S. officials say, they didn’t inform Pakistan of its plans. Unaware and unnerved Pakistanis scrambled their aircraft in the wake of the U.S. military intervention.
Publicly, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton thanked Pakistan for its cooperation and said the country “has contributed greatly to our efforts to dismantle al-Qaida.” She said that “in fact, cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound in which he was hiding.”
John Brennan, White House counterterrorism adviser, said the administration was looking at whether bin Laden had a support system in Pakistan that allowed him to remain in the country.
“We know that the people at the compound there were working on his behalf, and that’s how we ultimately found our way to that compound,” Brennan told reporters at the White House. “We are talking with the Pakistanis on a regular basis now, and we’re going to pursue all leads to find out exactly what type of support system and benefactors that bin Laden might have had.”
Interviewed Tuesday morning on NBC’s “Today” show, Brennan said that “clearly there was some kind of support network that provided him assistance.”
“Whether or not those were individuals inside the Pakistani government is unknown at this point,” he said. Brennan called Pakistan “a strong counterterrorism partner” and said there have been more terrorists arrested and killed there in recent years than in any other country. He said “brave Pakistanis have given their lives” in the effort.
Based on the location of the compound and its proximity to army regiments, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Pakistan’s intelligence and army has “got a lot of explaining to do.”
He cited the size of the compound compared with surrounding buildings and the fact that residents took the unusual step of burning all their garbage and avoiding any collection.
“It’s hard to imagine that the military or police did not have any ideas what was going on inside of that,” Levin told reporters Monday in a conference call.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Clinton seeking details on the level of cooperation from Pakistan, saying the fact that bin Laden lived in comfortable surroundings near Islamabad “calls into question whether or not the Pakistanis had knowledge that he was there and did not share that knowledge.”
In an essay published Tuesday by The Washington Post, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari denied suggestions his country’s security forces may have sheltered bin Laden, and said their cooperation with the United States helped pinpoint his location.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., who has traveled extensively to Pakistan and even worked as an intermediary to get Davis released, said candid conversations with the Pakistanis were necessary.
However, Kerry said it would be a mistake to forget “we’ve had people on the ground tracking this. There’s some degree of assistance and cooperation of the Pakistanis.”