ISLAMABAD (AP) — The CIA yanked its top spy out of Pakistan after his cover was blown and his life threatened, and 54 suspected militants were killed in a U.S. drone missile attack Friday in stark new signs of the troubled relationship between mistrustful allies locked in a war on terror groups.
The CIA’s decision to remove its Islamabad station chief comes at a pivotal moment. The Obama administration is pressing Pakistan to rid its lawless northwest frontier of militants, even as public outcry in the country has intensified against the U.S. spy agency’s unacknowledged drone war.
The station chief’s outing has spurred questions whether Pakistan’s spy service might have leaked the information. The name emerged publicly from a Pakistani man who has threatened to sue the CIA over the deaths of his son and brother in a 2009 drone missile strike. A lawsuit filed last month in New York City in connection with the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India, also may have raised tensions, by naming Pakistan’s intelligence chief as a defendant.
A Pakistani intelligence officer said the country’s intelligence service knew the identity of the station chief, but had "no clue" how the name was leaked. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because his agency, like many around the world, does not allow its operatives to be named in the media.
CIA airstrikes in Pakistan from unmanned aircraft have eliminated terrorist leaders but also have led to accusations that the strikes kill innocent civilians. The U.S. does not acknowledge the missile attacks, but there have been more than 110 this year — more than double last year’s total.
The 54 suspected militants killed Friday died in three American drone attacks close to the Afghan border. The high death toll included commanders of a Taliban-affiliated group who were holding a meeting when the missiles struck.
Drone strikes were at issue last November when a Pakistani man, Kareem Khan, and his lawyers, held a news conference, saying they would seek a $500 million payment in two weeks for the deaths of Khan’s son and brother, or they would sue CIA director Leon Panetta, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the man they identified as the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad. The Pakistanis said they would sue for "wrongful death" in a Pakistani court, but the lawsuit has yet to be filed.
Last week, Khan filed a complaint with the police, asking them to investigate the CIA station chief in the deaths of his brother and son. Demonstrators in Islamabad have carried placards bearing the CIA officer’s name as listed in the lawsuit, urging him to leave the country.
Although the lawsuit gave an American name for the station chief, the name was not listed correctly in those documents, The Associated Press has learned. The AP is not publishing the station chief’s name because he remains undercover and his identity is classified.
The CIA didn’t immediately move to pull the station chief out after the lawsuit was threatened. It wasn’t until the man, who had previously served in Baghdad, began receiving death threats that the agency acted. The station chief had been due to return in January to the U.S.
"Our station chiefs routinely encounter major risks as they work to keep America safe, and they’ve been targeted by terrorists in the past," CIA spokesman George Little said Friday. "They are courageous in the face of danger, and their security is obviously a top priority for the CIA, especially when there’s an imminent threat."
A U.S. intelligence official said Friday that the recall of the station chief would not hinder agency operations in Pakistan.
The CIA’s work is unusually difficult in Pakistan, one of the United States’ most important and at times frustrating counterterrorism allies.
The station chief in Islamabad operates as a virtual military commander in the U.S. war against al-Qaida and other militant groups hidden along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The chief runs the Predator drone program targeting terrorists and handles some of the CIA’s most urgent and sensitive tips.
The station chief also collaborates closely with Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, or ISI, in a relationship that has been as contentious as it has been useful in recent years. The alliance has led to strikes on key militant leaders but has also been marred by spats between the two agencies. During the first term of President George W. Bush’s administration, Pakistan almost expelled a previous CIA station chief in a dispute about intelligence sharing.
Almost a year ago, seven CIA officers and contractors were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. Six other agency officers were wounded in the attack, one of the deadliest in CIA history.
Just Wednesday, four agency employees escaped unharmed in an attempted bombing in Yemen’s capital.
The civil lawsuit filed in Brooklyn federal court last month also has raised tensions. The suit accused Pakistan’s ISI spy service of nurturing terrorists involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The suit listed Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of the ISI, as a defendant.
In the case in Pakistan, lawyer Shahzad Akbar said he got the station chief’s identity from local journalists. He said he included the name in the lawsuit because he wanted to sue a CIA operative living within the jurisdiction of the Islamabad court.
"He was facing legal charges, it would have been embarrassing for the U.S.," Akbar said. "They were worried about being asked pertinent questions about CIA operations in Pakistan."
It’s rare for a CIA station chief to be pulled out because of a blown cover.
In 1999, however, an Israeli newspaper revealed the identity of the station chief in Tel Aviv. In 2001, an Argentine newspaper printed a picture of the Buenos Aires station chief and details about him. In both instances, the station chiefs were recalled to the U.S.
The AP learned about the station chief’s removal on Thursday but held the story until he was out of the region.
The drone attacks Friday took place in the Khyber tribal region, which has been rarely struck by American missiles over the past three years. That could indicate an expansion of the CIA-led covert campaign of drone strikes inside Pakistan.
Most of the more than 100 missile attacks this year inside Pakistan have taken place in North Waziristan, which is effectively under the control of a mix of Taliban, al-Qaida and related groups. The region, seen as the major militant sanctuary in Pakistan, has yet to see an offensive by the Pakistani military.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama urged Pakistan to do more in tackling extremists in the border lands. Pakistan’s army has moved into several tribal regions over the past two years but says it lacks the troops to launch a North Waziristan operation anytime soon while still holding gains it has made elsewhere.
Adam Goldman reported from Washington.