Pakistani Doctor Helped U.S. Track Bin Laden, Panetta says
By Saeed Shah for McClatchy Newspapers
A senior American official has for the first time admitted that a Pakistani doctor played a key role in tracking Osama bin Laden to his hideout in northern Pakistan, and called for his release.
The comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were the first public confirmation of a part of the bin Laden operation reported by McClatchy Newspapers in July, about how the CIA used Shakil Afridi to try to establish whether the al-Qaida leader was really living in a large house in Abbottabad, northern Pakistan.
This morning in Islamabad, Pakistan’s Inquiry Commission on the Abbottabad Operation issued an order to charge Afridi with treason, local media reported. The timing makes it appear that Pakistan is rebuking Panetta for his public acknowledgement of Afridi’s role. Afridi has been in Pakistani custody since the country’s own spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), learned of the secret task performed by the doctor, who set up a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad to get DNA samples from those staying at the compound.
The CIA was never certain that bin Laden was present in the house. Afridi worked for the American intelligence agency in the weeks leading up to the Navy SEALs raid on May 2, setting up an elaborate scheme that was supposedly going house to house to vaccinate residents in Abbottabad.
Panetta told CBS’ “60 Minutes” “I am very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual (Afridi). This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regard to this operation.” Panetta also voiced his belief that elements within Pakistan must have known that bin Laden, or at least someone significant, was present inside the compound. The interview was posted on the “60 Minutes” website. However, it was not included in the segment telecast on Sunday night. The McClatchy investigation discovered that Afridi was arrested by the ISI in late May and was tortured. It is believed that he remains in the custody of the intelligence agency, which is part of the military.
The whereabouts of Afridi’s family, including his American wife of Pakistani origin, is still unknown. The fate of the doctor has become another source of tension between Islamabad and Washington, with American officials pressing Pakistan to free him so he and his family can be resettled in the United States.
The military, which will decide what happens to Afridi, is furious that the CIA recruited Pakistani citizens for clandestine operations inside the country. Privately, officials point out that it is a crime to work for a foreign intelligence agency.
The doctor has turned into a bargaining chip in the failing U.S-Pakistan alliance. It is thought that Pakistan will let him go after public attention on the case wanes and it gets something in return from the U.S. “He was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan. He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan,” Panetta told “60 Minutes.”
“Pakistan and the U.S. have a common cause here against terrorism,” he said. “And for them to take this kind of action against somebody who was helping to go after terrorism, I just think it is a real mistake on their part.”
Panetta, who was in charge of the CIA at the time of the bin Laden raid, also said that while there was no evidence of Pakistani complicity in keeping the al-Qaida chief, suspicions must have been raised about his hideout. “I personally have always felt that somebody must have had some sense of what was happening at this compound. Don’t forget, this compound had 18-foot walls. … It was the largest compound in the area.
“So you would have thought that somebody would have asked the question, ‘What the hell’s going on there?’” Panetta said.
But asked whether he knew for sure that Pakistan was aware of bin Laden’s presence, he said: “I don’t have any hard evidence, so I can’t say it for a fact.”