05.04.11

Did CIA Ignore bin Laden Warning? 

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry says it told U.S. intelligence two years ago of suspicions about the compound in Abbottabad where bin Laden was found. Philip Shenon reports on the claim’s credibility.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry says it told U.S. intelligence two years ago of suspicions about the compound in Abbottabad where bin Laden was found. Philip Shenon reports on the claim’s credibility. Plus, full coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death.

Did Pakistan’s spy agency alert the CIA two years ago that there was something suspicious about the compound where Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed? Was it intelligence from the Pakistan government that finally led the U.S. to bin Laden?

Those were the claims of the Pakistani government today, fighting back against accusations that it ignored evidence of the presence of bin Laden and his family—apparently for years—in a large home only a stone’s throw from the military academy that is Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point.

Gallery: Osama’s Abbottabad Mansion

In a statement released to The Daily Beast by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, the government said that it had been sharing specific intelligence with the CIA about the compound since 2009 and that Abbottabad, the northern Pakistani city when bin Laden was found, has been “under sharp focus of intelligence agencies since 2003” because of reports of the presence of al Qaeda fighters.

“The fact is that this particular location was pointed out by our intelligence quite some time ago to the U.S. intelligence,” the Pakistani Foreign Secretary said.

“The intelligence flow indicating some foreigners in the surroundings of Abbottabad continued until mid-April 2011,” the statement said. “It is important to highlight that taking advantage of much superior technological assets, CIA exploited the intelligence leads given by us to identify and reach Osama bin Laden.”

A CIA spokeswoman said she was aware of the Pakistani statement but had no immediate comment on it. A White House spokeswoman also had no comment. But U.S. government officials have long expressed skepticism about many of their Pakistani counterparts’ claims of their cooperation in aiding America’s efforts against al Qaeda.

The Foreign Ministry statement was released as the Pakistani Foreign Secretary, Salman Bashir, told the BBC that he was distressed by comments by CIA Director Leon Panetta that Pakistan could not be trusted with advance information about the U.S. attack that resulted in bin Laden’s death.

He said that the Pakistani ISI, the country’s powerful military intelligence agency, had identified the Abbottabad complex as suspicious long ago—and urged the U.S. to use its sophisticated electronic monitoring talents to determine who was inside.

“The fact is that this particular location was pointed out by our intelligence quite some time ago to the U.S. intelligence,” he said, noting that the U.S. had “much more sophisticated equipment to evaluate and to assess” what was going on in the sprawling compound where bin Laden was eventually killed.

He said it was unfair to suggest that Pakistan would look the other way at bin Laden’s presence, given his government’s central role in apprehending so many other senior al Qaeda members within Pakistan’s borders, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. “Most of these things that have happened in terms of combating global terror, Pakistan has played a pivotal role,” he said.

In its statement, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry suggested that it was not surprising that the bin Laden compound drew little attention from others in the neighborhood, noting that in the high-security area around Abbottabad and the Pakistani military academy, many houses have “high boundary walls, in line with their culture of privacy and security—houses with such layout and structural details are not a rarity.”

Despite American suspicions that some leaders of the Pakistani military must have known and approved of granting sanctuary to bin Laden, a former senior U.S. intelligence official tells The Daily Beast that it seems highly unlikely that bin Laden’s presence was known by more than a few people, if only because no one attempted to claim the State Department’s $10 million reward for bin Laden’s head—a reward that had been widely publicized in the Pakistan media.

“You’d have thought that over all these years, someone would drop a dime on him,” the official said. “That’s a lot of money for a single phone call or email. It’s surprising that there wasn’t a money-hungry general somewhere who wanted that money. Actually, it’s amazing.”

Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter based in Washington D.C. Almost all of his career was spent at The New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1981 until 2008. He is the bestselling author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from The Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.