Pakistan looks to lobbyists for help on bin Laden fallout

Pakistan will likely call upon Washington lobbyists to help repair its fraught U.S. relations after Osama bin Laden was found and killed in the country Sunday.

Locke Lord Strategies has been lobbying for the Pakistani embassy since May 2008, earning more than $1.9 million in fees, according to Justice Department records. 

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The firm’s lobbying team for Pakistan has been led by Mark Siegel, a veteran Democratic Party operative, Carter White House aide and close friend to Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister who was assassinated in 2007 as she campaigned for her old seat.

Siegel told The Hill that he is planning to talk to lawmakers to combat what he terms “speculation” from some in the media that Pakistan’s government must have known of bin Laden’s hiding place.

“It’s these consultants that all these networks have hired to talk about terrorism who are making all these speculations,” said Siegel, a partner at Locke Lord. “We have some education to do on the Hill. We don’t want this speculation to end up being considered as fact.”

Pakistan has received billions of dollars of U.S. foreign aid over the years, which could come under threat with the discovery of bin Laden in the country. On Monday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said Congress should wait on funding the president’s fiscal 2012 budget request of close to $3 billion in aid to Pakistan until the country’s government explains how bin Laden hid for so long in plain sight. 

“Before we send another dime, we need to know whether Pakistan truly stands with us in the fight against terrorism. Until Congress and the American public are assured that the Pakistani government is not shielding terrorists, financial aid to Pakistan should be suspended,” Lautenberg said in a statement. 

Questions have been raised about the Pakistani government’s knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts. The al Qaeda leader was found in a large, heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad — a suburb of the country’s capital city Islamabad — near a military academy.

Others have raised questions about whether Pakistan helped bin Laden or not. John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, said Monday that Pakistan must have been providing a “support system” for bin Laden.

“I think it’s inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time. I am not going to speculate about what type of support he might have had on an official basis inside of Pakistan,” Brennan said at a White House briefing.

Elements in Pakistan’s military and intelligence forces have long been suspected of being sympathetic to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, leading to tense relations at times between the country and the United States.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized Pakistan recently for not shutting down terrorist networks that were crossing into Afghanistan and killing U.S. troops. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also often pressed the Pakistani government to do more in its hunt for terrorists.

That U.S. pressure came as Pakistanis grew agitated by repeated bombings from unmanned drones on suspected terrorist sites in the country. The January shooting of two men by CIA contractor Raymond Davis in Lahore, Pakistan, angered the Pakistani people even more.

Mark Tavlarides, a former Clinton National Security Council aide who lobbied for Pakistan from 2005 to 2008, said the discovery of bin Laden in Pakistan is bound to affect U.S. relations.

“This probably adds another level of strain,” said Tavlarides, a vice president at Van Scoyoc Associates. “Policymakers in the United States are going to raise questions about what was known by the Pakistani government about Osama bin Laden’s location in Pakistan.”

Nevertheless, plans to cut off foreign aid to Pakistan would be premature and could jeopardize America’s security interests in the region, Tavlarides said.

“This war is not over,” Tavlarides said. “It is in the U.S. interest to continue to provide economic and security assistance to Pakistan.” 

Since taking on the Pakistani embassy as a client, Lord Locke has been lobbying for U.S. foreign aid to the country. The firm helped to push a $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan through Congress in 2009.

Siegel noted that the Pakistani government received praise from Obama when he first announced Sunday that bin Laden had been killed.

“This key lead came from Pakistan, the identification of the courier, which led to bin Laden’s death,” Siegel said. “I do think Pakistan was clearly quite helpful.”

Pakistan’s government released a statement Monday saying that Obama called Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to brief him about the operation after it occurred and that the country is united in fighting to end terrorism.

“Al Qaeda had declared war on Pakistan. Scores of al Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attacks resulted in deaths of thousands of innocent Pakistani men, women and children. Almost 30,000 Pakistani civilians lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the last few years. More than 5,000 Pakistani security and armed forces officials have been martyred in Pakistan’s campaign against al Qaeda, other terrorist organizations and affiliates,” the statement said.

Pakistan has run into controversy with its lobbying representation in the past.

In October 2007, the Pakistani embassy hired Cassidy & Associates to a yearlong, $1.2 million contract. But about a month later, the firm withdrew the contract after then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule to crack down on protesters.

Dismissing the comparison between Pakistan and Cassidy’s situation and his own, Siegel said that he would not cancel his lobby contract.

“I have had a 27-year relationship with Pakistan. It is not just professional. It is deeply personal,” Siegel said. “I would never walk away from them.”

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