WASHINGTON: US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has urged Islamabad to release a Pakistani physician who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 2 last year.
In an interview for an episode of “60 Minutes”, a programme run by the Colombia Broadcasting Service (CBS), Mr Panetta acknowledged that the doctor provided vital clues to the United States about Osama’s lair.
The revelation came on the heels of a Friday speech by Vice President Joseph Biden in which he disclosed that he had cautioned President Barack Obama against raiding Osama bin Laden’s hideout, but the president took the decision all alone.
Speaking at a conference of House Democrats in Maryland, Mr Biden said President Obama ignored his reservations and Leon Panetta, then CIA chief, was the only member of the inner circle who backed the president.
In the CBS interview, Leon Panetta said he believed Pakistani officials knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding before US Navy SEALs found and killed him on May 2, last year.
“There is a Pakistani doctor who, as we understand, was helping our efforts there, a man named Shakil Afridi, he is now being charged with treason in Pakistan and I wonder what you think of that?” asked the interviewer.
“I am very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual. This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regard to this operation.
“And he was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan. He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan,” Mr Panetta replied.
Dr Afridi ran a vaccination programme for the CIA to collect DNA and verify Osama bin Laden’s presence in the Abbottabad compound. Media reports claim that Islamabad had charged Mr Afridi, an employee of the Pakistan government, with treason for working for a foreign intelligence agency.
Mr Panetta headed the CIA when Dr Afridi worked for the agency. Pakistan has so far not issued any official statement on Mr Afridi’s whereabouts. “As a matter of fact, Pakistan and the US have a common cause here against terrorism, have a common cause against Al Qaeda, have a common cause against those who will attack not only our country but their country. And for them to take this kind of action against somebody who was helping to go after terrorism, I just think it is a real mistake on their part,” said Mr Panetta.
“Should they free him?” the interviewer asked. “They can take whatever steps they want to do to discipline him, but ultimately he ought to be released,” Mr Panetta replied.
Reports in the US media quoted senior Pakistani officials as saying that they wanted to resolve the issue amicably. Pakistan would release Mr Afridi quietly to US custody, once media attention died down, the reports said. Asked if he believed Pakistani officials knew Osama was hiding in Abbottabad, Mr Panetta said: “I don’t have any hard evidence, so I can’t say it for a fact. There’s nothing that proves the case. But as I said, my personal view is that somebody somewhere probably had that knowledge.”
Mr Panetta said Pakistani military helicopters were reported to have passed over the compound where the late Al Qaeda chief was found. “I personally have always felt that somebody must have had some sense of what — what was happening at this compound. Don’t forget, this compound had 18 foot walls. … It was the largest compound in the area.
“So you would have thought that somebody would have asked the question, ‘What the hell’s going on there?’” Mr Panetta said.
The defence secretary also explained why Pakistani officials were not informed when the United States raided the compound.
“We had seen some military helicopters actually going over this compound. And for that reason, it concerned us that, if we, in fact, brought [Pakistan] into it, that — they might … give bin Laden a heads up,” he said.
Diplomatic observers in Washington say that Mr Panetta’s statement was aimed at exerting pressure on Pakistan to release Dr Afridi.
BIDEN EXPLAINS HIS ADVICE: Mr Biden said in his speech he advised President Obama not to carry out the mission because he believed “we have to do more things to see if he’s there”.
The vice president gave an insider account of the internal discussions in the White House before the order was officially carried out and praised Mr Obama as a person with a “backbone like ramrod”.
Mr Biden said that for a four-to-six week period early last year, only six people knew that Osama bin Laden might be hiding in Abbottabad.
When enough information finally surfaced, the president convened his national security staff on April 28.
“The president, he went around the table, with all the senior people, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he said ‘I have to make a decision, what is your opinion’. He started with the National Security Adviser, the Secretary of State, and he ended with me,” recalled Mr Biden.
“He (Obama) went around the table with all the senior people. … Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta. Mr Leon said, ‘go.’ Everyone else said 49, 51 (percent in favour),” Mr Biden added. “It got to me. (Mr Obama) said ‘Joe — what do you think?’ I said, ‘You know, I didn’t know we had so many economists around the table.’ I said we owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is don’t go.” “You end up having to make decisions based on the moon, will there be enough light. And we had to make a decision,” said Mr Biden.
According to the Vice President, Mr Obama left that meeting and said he would make the decision in the morning. “The next morning he came down to the diplomatic entrance, getting in a helicopter I believe to go to Michigan, I’m not positive for that. He turned to Tom Donilon (then national security adviser) and said “go,” Mr Biden related.
The Vice President was not the only person who had second thoughts about pulling the trigger.
Former defence secretary Robert Gates has also admitted he had reservations about the raid.
President Obama, Mr Biden argued, showed leadership. “He knew what was at stake. Not just the lives of those brave warriors, but literally the presidency, and he pulled the trigger,” Mr Biden said.
“This guy doesn’t lead from behind — he just leads.”
A Pentagon official told Fox News that Adm. Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, “certainly recognised the risk, but he did not hesitate in offering his advice that we should go.”
Another official said that Gen. James Cartwright, who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, was leaning against a raid and more toward an air strike in that final meeting.