By B. Raman
At a media briefing held in Washington on May 2, 2011, John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, answered questions regarding the chopper-borne special operations carried out by the US Navy Seals on the night of May 1, 2011, during which Osama bin Laden was killed. There were a large number of questions regarding the likely implications of OBL being found living at Abbotabad, an important garrison town in which the Pakistan Military Academy is located. There were also questions regarding when Pakistan was informed about the operation and other operational details. In this note, I have extracted details of the likely implications of OBL being found living in Abbotabad.
From the answers given by him three points are clear: Firstly, the US has been interacting with Pakistani officials to determine whether there was any prior knowledge or complicity at any level of the Pakistani administration. Secondly, the US continues to attach importance to its strategic relations with Pakistan. Counter-terrorism co-operation is one component of that strategic relationship. Thirdly, incidents keep arising in the counter-terrorism co-operation. OBL being found living in Abbotabad is the latest such incident. He praised Pakistan’s over-all co-operation in counter-terrorism.
And if I could just ask, have you been able to determine how bin Laden was able to hide in this relatively prominent location, and do you believe the Pakistanis when they say that they had no idea that he was there?
John Brennan: People have been referring to this as hiding in plain sight. Clearly this was something that was considered as a possibility. Pakistan is a large country. We are looking right now at how he was able to hold out there for so long, and whether or not there was any type of support system within Pakistan that allowed him to stay there.
We know that the people at the compound there were working on his behalf, and that’s how we ultimately found our way to that compound. But we are right now less than 24 hours after this operation, so we are talking with the Pakistanis on a regular basis now, and we’re going to pursue all leads to find out exactly what type of support system and benefactors that bin Laden might have had.
But you don’t necessarily take them at their word that they didn’t know?
John Brennan: We are pursuing all leads in this issue.
Just to follow on that, is it really credible that Pakistani authorities had no idea that this compound was being built and that it existed — such an elaborate compound?
John Brennan: 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. We are closely talking to the Pakistanis right now, and again, we are leaving open opportunities to continue to pursue whatever leads might be out there.
Can you tell us more about the role that the U.S. — more of the role of how the U.S. is interacting with Pakistan and are we actively investigating what they knew and didn’t know about Osama bin Laden being there or not?
John Brennan: Well, a couple things. One, the President mentioned yesterday that he spoke to President Zardari, and a number of senior U.S. officials are in regular contact now with their Pakistani counterparts. We are continuing to engage with them — we’re engaging with them today — as we learn more about the compound and whatever type of support system bin Laden had.
I would point out that we’ve had differences of view with the Pakistani government on counterterrorism cooperation, on areas of cooperation, and what we think they should and shouldn’t be doing. At the same time, I’ll say that Pakistan has been responsible for capturing and killing more terrorists inside of Pakistan than any country, and it’s by a wide margin. And there have been many, many brave Pakistani soldiers, security officials, as well as citizens, who have given their lives because of the terrorism scourge in that country. So although there are some differences of view with Pakistan, we believe that that partnership is critically important to breaking the back of al Qaeda and eventually prevailing over al Qaeda as well as associated terrorist groups.
And so today lawmakers are urging — possibly reconsidering or reevaluating aid to Pakistan, maybe attaching strings to military aid there. Was the White House —
John Brennan: I think people are raising a number of questions, and understandably so. Again, we’re in just the first day after the operation, and he was found in Abbottabad outside of Islamabad. I’m sure a number of people have questions about whether or not there was some type of support that was provided by the Pakistani government. So I think people are raising these questions and how we’re going to have to deal with them.
Can I ask one follow? You mentioned that questions are going to be raised about Pakistan, understandably, and the role of Pakistan. For you and your counterterrorism job, given now the history of the Raymond Davis episode and the fact that this was done without consultation, are you concerned that in just in your line of work it will be very difficult to reestablish a good working relationship with the ISI or the intelligence authorities there?
John Brennan: There’s dialogue going on with our counterterrorism counterparts in the aftermath of this. They’re expressing understanding about the reasons why we did this. They are appreciative that it was done without having Pakistani casualties outside of that compound. The U.S.-Pakistani relationship, which is a strategic relationship, goes on a number of different areas and levels; counterterrorism is one of them. It can be a complicated matter. As I say, we don’t always agree on some of the things that we want to do. But through that continued dialogue and communication, I think we get where we need to be.
This is one more incident that we’re going to have to deal with, and we look forward to continue to work with our Pakistani colleagues, because they are as much, if not more, on the front lines of the battle against terrorism.
Since the death of bin Laden, what is the thought of this administration — do you believe that the Pakistani government was transparent and being honest and forthcoming, given the information that they have now on Osama bin Laden — what they knew, or going in to finding out more about this situation?
John Brennan: There are a lot of people within the Pakistani government, and I’m not going to speculate about who or if any of them had prior knowledge about bin Laden being in Abbottabad. But certainly his location there outside of the capital raises questions. We are talking to the Pakistanis about this. But they, at least in our discussions with them, seem as surprised as we were initially that bin Laden was holding out in that area.
You spoke earlier about using this as kind of a pivot point to demonstrate to the people of Pakistan that al Qaeda has passed, that there’s a different future. Is the President still firmly committed to visiting Pakistan this year to make that message in person?
John Brennan: I’m not going to address the President’s schedule. I think there’s a commitment that the President has made that he is intending to visit Pakistan. A lot depends on availability, scheduling, whatever. The President feels very strongly that the people of Pakistan need to be able to realize their potential to have a life that is full of security as well as prosperity. And because of the al Qaeda menace as well as other militant organizations in that country, too many Pakistanis have suffered and have died because of that. And what the President is wanting to do and what we’re doing with the Pakistani government is to see what we can do to help the Pakistani government provide that type of lifestyle for their populace in the future.
Mr. Brennan, in light of the size of this — the unique features and the size of this compound, is it likely that the neighbors had known anything about this, who lived there?
John Brennan: When you look at the features of this compound, these very high walls — 12-, 16-, 18-foot walls, barbed wire on the top, this was a family, this was a compound that had very limited interaction, to the best of our knowledge and observation, with the surrounding houses. But it clearly was different than any other house out there. It had the appearance of sort of a fortress, so it does raise questions about —
Did they help them — basically?
John Brennan: Well, I think there was — we have had some indications that the family that was there tried to remain anonymous and tried not to have that interaction. But again, it does raise questions about a compound of that size in this area not raising suspicions previously.