The American media has again been complaining about perfidious Pakistan over the report that five men had been arrested for helping the United States kill Osama bin Laden. The complaining is ridiculous. It was inevitable that Pakistan would try to identify and arrest those Pakistanis who had been recruited by CIA and were working as agents. The FBI would do exactly the same if the situation were reversed.
A number of websites where former intelligence officers congregate are also buzzing over the story. The initial reports were followed by media accounts that CIA Director Leon Panetta had personally met with his counterparts in Pakistan and had asked that the detainees be released. The New York Times followed up with an article revealing that the five men had indeed been arrested, confirmed that they had been working for CIA, and added that one of them was a Major in the Pakistani Army who had been providing a list of license plate numbers on the vehicles entering and leaving the bin Laden compound. A subsequent story suggested that the Pakistani authorities had released four of the five men arrested, but as far as I can tell that has not been confirmed.
Former intel officers are angry because Panetta apparently confirmed to the Pakistanis that the men were indeed CIA agents. Depending on how one looks at it, that could be equivalent to a death sentence, but it is possible that part of the tale is missing. Panetta might have already known that the men had confessed, presumably under torture, but if there were any remaining doubt in the mind of the Pakistanis he would have dispelled that through his plea. The New York Times report, based as it was on an official government source, served as confirmation of Panetta.
One former CIA officer described the Panetta plea and the NYT story as together “executing the five agents.” It is the ultimate no-no in The Business never to reveal the identity of a source and thereby endanger him. Panetta is, of course, not a real spy and the NYT has never indicated that it understands what goes on either. If the White House made the decision to try to free the men on some kind of humanitarian grounds, it was a bad choice because most agents are trained to have cover stories that enable them to plausibly deny any clandestine activity. Intervening on their behalf would have confirmed that they were American spies and would have eliminated any possibility that they might talk their way out of jail.
Possibly the most disturbing aspect of the whole affair is the possibility that Obama acted in the belief that we are the good guys and that the Paks would understand that it was all in a great cause, i.e. killing bin Laden. I don’t think Islamabad would quite see it that way.