Pakistanis accused of CIA collusion over Bin Laden raid

Spy agency arrests at least five in attempt to 'shut down unauthorised US operations'

Pakistan's most powerful intelligence agency is interrogating at least five Pakistanis on suspicions of collusion with the CIA in the months leading up to the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a garrison town just two hours from the capital.

The New York Times reported that the arrested men include a serving Pakistani army major – a claim that the Pakistani military fiercely denied yesterday. It is unclear how many are being held. A Pakistani army officer said that 30 to 40 civilians had been questioned in recent days, with some released on Tuesday.

The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, suggested on Capitol Hill that reports of alleged informants being taken into custody by Pakistan would hardly surprise him. This is the "real world we deal with", he said when asked about the arrests. "Most governments lie to each other," sometimes arrest people and sometimes spy on us, he added. He stopped short of confirming that the arrests had taken place.

The arrests represent the latest attempt by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to shut down what it sees as unauthorised CIA operations on its soil. The ISI, said a senior Pakistani official, is "trying to lay down the rule that the CIA does not operate independently in Pakistan".

The CIA chief Leon Panetta raised concerns about the arrests last Friday, when he met the ISI chief, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Mr Panetta had flown into Islamabad on his final visit before he takes charge as Defence Secretary for talks on the strained relationship between the two spy agencies. Mr Panetta also confronted General Pasha with evidence of suspected collusion between elements within the ISI and pro-Afghan Taliban militants. Satellite video images taken by the CIA that were shown to US Senate intelligence committees show militants fleeing two bomb-making factories in North and South Waziristan within 24 hours of the CIA passing on their locations.

The latest CIA-ISI troubles come against the backdrop of Pakistan's security establishment suffering a series of unprecedented humiliations over the past six weeks. At the same time, opposition politicians, civil society campaigners and journalists have subjected the feared top generals to unprecedented criticism. There is also pressure coming from the middle ranks of the army, who are angered by what they see as US aggression against Pakistan. "In the top ranks there are real concerns about whether soldiers will obey orders in some circumstances," said a senior Western diplomat.

By being seen to stand up to the US, the military establishment hopes to unburden itself of the piling pressure. "They have to show their middle ranks that they can be tough," the diplomat added.

For months, the ISI has also been anxious about an expanding and unauthorised CIA footprint in Pakistan. Worries about sovereignty have been complicated by the revelation last month that the CIA had been operating a safe house in the same area as the Bin Laden compound. The arrests may be an attempt to efface some of that shame. "It is intolerable for General Pasha to have any Pakistanis working for unaccounted CIA operations," said the Western diplomat. In the case of the major, if true, General Pasha would see his involvement as "straightforward treason", the diplomat said. By using Pakistanis, the CIA will have hoped to evade the scrutiny that Americans in Abbottabad will have attracted.

The CIA's independent operations in Pakistan were authorised by Barack Obama soon after coming to office. Exhausted by what it sees as Pakistan's "double game", presenting itself as an ally while colluding with the pro-Afghan Taliban militants, Mr Obama ordered the CIA to shed its reliance on the ISI.

Suspicions remain rife among leading members of the US Congress that Pakistan is failing in its promise to cooperate fully with the US, which gives it billions of dollars in aid, when it comes to combating terrorism and may even have assisted Bin Laden in remaining inside his Pakistan lair for so long without being detected. The sense was reinforced last week when, at a closed-door briefing, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked Michael Morrell, the deputy CIA director, to rate Pakistani co-operation on counter-terrorism matters on a scale of one to 10. "Three," Mr Morrell reportedly replied.

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