By John T. Bennett - 05/03/11 12:09 AM EDT
Washington placed Pakistani officials in the rhetorical crosshairs Monday, questioning how they could be ignorant of Osama bin Laden’s hiding place just miles from Islamabad.
U.S. military and CIA personnel early Monday morning raided a compound in a suburb of Pakistan’s capital, killing al Qaeda founder and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Now Obama administration officials and lawmakers want some answers from Pakistani leaders.
“It is hard to imagine the police or the military” had no knowledge that bin Laden was hiding in a sprawling compound in an affluent part of Abbottabad, a town only about 30 miles from Islamabad, Levin told reporters. What’s more, the area is home to many retired Pakistani military officials, administration officials said.
President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser called it “inconceivable” that Pakistan was not providing a “support system” for bin Laden.
“We are pursuing all leads on this issue,” Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan said during a White House briefing. “I think people are raising a number of questions, and understandably so.”
Bin Laden likely would not have been able to hide undetected at the compound — which is in close proximity to a Pakistani military installation — without help from within the country, Brennan said. He declined to speculate on what that help might include.
The mere appearance of the “isolated” structure should have raised eyebrows among senior Pakistani officials, said Levin, a sentiment echoed by administration officials and national-security experts.
The compound was “five times” larger than other nearby residences, Levin said. Administration officials noted it had massive walls — a diagram of the facility released by the Pentagon showed one wall was 18 feet high, and others were 10 to 13 feet high. The inhabitants of the compound burned every bit of trash; their neighbors left trash outside for collection.
The facility also is located near the Pakistani Military Academy, according to reports.
Nonetheless, a senior defense official told reporters that the Defense Department had “no indications that the Pakistanis were aware that Osama bin Laden was at the compound in Abbottabad.”
In an interview with Bloomberg News, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf defended the government in Islamabad — even saying he likely frequently jogged by the compound.
“They didn’t know where he was,” Musharraf said. “One can call it a failing or a shortcoming of intelligence, but then it’s a shortcoming of both intelligences — Pakistan and the United States.”
“This incident [shows] Pakistan is a critical but uncertain ally,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Monday. She added it is “hard to understand” how such a facility could be constructed in that location “without raising suspicions.”
The questions about what Pakistani officials knew “tells us, once again, that Pakistan, at times, is playing a very different game — and that concerns me,” Collins said.
“This is going to be a time of real pressure … to basically prove to us that they didn’t know that bin Laden was there,” Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) told reporters.
CIA Director Leon Panetta is scheduled to brief House lawmakers Tuesday on the capture of bin Laden, according to leadership aides.
The classified briefing is set to take place at 3 p.m. in the Capitol Visitor’s Center.
Levin said the Senate Armed Services Committee is also slated to be briefed Tuesday.
A top question on Monday was whether these widespread concerns would lead the administration or Congress to pull — or threaten to pull — the billions in aid Washington has sent to Pakistan in return for cooperation since 9/11.
Washington needs to “keep the pressure on Pakistan,” Collins said.
She then went further than other lawmakers, noting that placing certain stipulations on the billions in U.S. aid is one way to do that.
Levin sidestepped several questions from reporters about whether he now favors cutting or eliminating U.S. aid to Pakistan.
But the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman did say he wants to hear Pakistani leaders’ answers to pointed and tough questions about what they really knew before making a final decision about future aid packages.
In its 2012 budget plan, the Obama administration is proposing $3 billion in civilian and military aid for Pakistan, according to U.S. budget documents and officials. If approved by Congress, $1.6 billion of that is slated to go to the Pakistani military and law enforcement entities.
But some lawmakers want to reduce the amount Washington sends to Pakistan each year unless officials there track closer to Washington’s whims.
“Pakistan must also do more to meet pressing U.S. concerns,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman, said in March.
Cutting or axing that proposed package might be easier said than done, however.
Such a move would run the risk of angering a key — if oftentimes reluctant — partner in the Afghanistan conflict at a time when Pentagon and administration officials say they are seeing “tangible progress.”
Washington has for nearly a decade sent funding and other aid to Islamabad in return for assistance targeting terrorist groups and anti-U.S. fighters who use the rugged mountain region along the countries' border — and Pakistani soil — as a safe haven from American and coalition forces.
For that reason, Lieberman labeled the relationship with Pakistan “maybe the most complicated” of any Washington has that is based largely on security and intelligence.
Even amid the Monday wave of criticism, Pentagon officials and experts say Pakistan has taken some actions, such as allowing U.S. drone strikes of al Qaeda and Taliban targets inside its borders, to assist Washington’s war efforts.
But lawmakers made clear the question of whether Islamabad is still worthy of billions annually in U.S. funds is on the table.
“The circumstances of bin Laden’s death also make it clear that the U.S. still has serious problems in getting support from Pakistan, and are yet another reflection of tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan over the failures of the ISI and Pakistani military to act on their own,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former senior Pentagon adviser.
Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.