By John T. Bennett - 05/18/11 10:48 PM EDT
U.S. officials have “no evidence” that current Pakistani leaders knew Osama bin Laden had been holed up near their capital city for half a decade, but they suspect someone — perhaps a retired official — did know about the al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts.
Amid passionate calls from Capitol Hill for the Obama administration to get tough with Pakistan after the revelation bin Laden had been hiding there for up to five years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday he has seen “no evidence at all that the senior leadership knew.”
Gates told reporters during a Pentagon briefing that “I’ve seen some evidence to the contrary.”
In fact, Gates said, U.S. officials “have no evidence yet with respect to anybody else” knowing bin Laden was hiding in a compound about 30 miles from Islamabad.
Still, the former CIA director added, “My supposition is somebody knew.”
Gates said a retired Pakistani official or a “low-level” one probably was in the know, reiterating his feeling was “pure supposition.”
“It’s hard to go to them with an accusation when we have no proof that anybody knew,” Gates told reporters.
His comments come as senior U.S. lawmakers from both parties continue raising the notion of slapping tough restrictions on the various forms of aid Washington sends Islamabad each year.
The Obama administration has resisted taking a hard line against Pakistan since the May 1 raid — though officials are bewildered that bin Laden could have remained there, undetected, for so long — because that nation is a crucial ally in the Afghanistan conflict.
During the same session with reporters, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen urged U.S. government officials to zip up public leaks of information about the commando raid that netted America’s most wanted foe.
“We have, from my perspective, gotten to a point where we are close to jeopardizing this precious capability that we have, and we can’t afford to do that,” Mullen said, apparently referring to Navy SEAL Team 6, the elite commando squad that carried out the operation.
“This [terrorism] fight isn’t over, first of all,” Mullen said.
“Secondly, when you now extend that to concern with individuals in the military and their families, from my perspective, it is time to stop talking,” Mullen said bluntly. “And we have talked far too much about this. We need to move on. It’s a story that, if we don’t stop talking, it will never end. And it needs to,” he said.
Just hours later, in the same Pentagon briefing room, Mullen appeared before reporters with Chinese Gen. Chen Bingde, that nation’s chief of the general staff.
The somewhat striking scene of a Chinese general in his crisp green dress uniform standing at a podium in the Pentagon briefing room could rile some Republican lawmakers who say declining U.S. defense budgets are unacceptable at a time when China is modernizing its military.
As Mullen — in his bright white Navy officer’s dress uniform — and Chen spoke for about an hour, the scene also underscored the differences between the Obama and George W. Bush administrations’ tacks toward the growing Asian and global power.
The former is seeking a strategic — if limited — partnership with Beijing; under the latter, U.S.-Sino relations grew chilly. But even under the Bush administration, Mullen talked often about the need for a better military-to-military relationship.
Mullen and Chen said that during talks this week at the Pentagon, they have agreed to enhance cooperation on issues such as piracy, counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change. They also agreed to hold more joint military exercises that would focus on missions like countering pirates, and doing disaster and humanitarian relief tasks.
Chen, somewhat predictably, did ping the U.S. on its relationship with Taiwan.
He labeled Washington’s 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which elevates the breakaway Chinese island as equal diplomatically to other nations, as a law that “interferes” with China’s “domestic affairs.”
“To apply a domestic law on another countries’ affairs is ... hegemonic,” Chen told reporters.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had told Chen in a meeting earlier Wednesday at Foggy Bottom, Mullen replied that America “supports a ‘One-China policy’ ” and “shares the view of peaceful reunification of China.”
The hard part is seeing “what steps [are needed] to assure that happens,” Mullen said.
Chen said future U.S. weapons sales to the island nation will affect American-Sino relations, but said to what extent will depend on the “nature” of those arms packages.
To that end, Mullen merely said he “appreciates” Chen’s comments.
THis story was originally posted at 6:48 p.m. and updated at 8:07 p.m.