LAHORE, Pakistan — 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 revealed by McClatchy Newspapers in July last year, 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.
Afridi has been in Pakistani custody since the country's own spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), discovered the secret task performed by the doctor, who set up a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad in a bid to gain DNA samples from those staying at the suspect 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 May 2 U.S. special forces raid, setting up an elaborate scheme that was supposedly going house to house to vaccinate residents in Abbottabad.
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Panetta, speaking to CBS' "60 Minutes" in an interview to be broadcast Sunday night, also voiced his belief that elements within Pakistan must have known that bin Laden, or at least someone significant, was present inside the prominent compound.
"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 said, according to material from the show released in advance to the press.
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, but has not been charged formally with any crime.
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.
Pakistan's official commission investigating bin Laden's presence in the country last year recommended that Afridi be tried for treason. The military, which will decide what happens to Afridi, was furious that the CIA was recruiting 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 within the failing U.S-Pakistan alliance. It is thought that Pakistan will let him go after public attention to the case wanes and it extracts 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 said.
"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."
The U.S. defense secretary, who was in charge of the CIA at the time of the bin Laden raid, also said that while there was no actual 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.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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