Willful Ignorants

Pakistan’s leaked bin Laden report proves that the country’s vaunted spy agency is either shockingly inept or duplicitous. Or both.

"Everyone, including the United States, thought Osama bin Laden was no longer alive." That was the explanation senior Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officials gave when asked how the world's most-wanted man had eluded them for a decade. But members of a Pakistani government commission charged with investigating the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden didn't buy it, and they said so in a remarkably candid 336-page report published by Al Jazeera this week.

The report, written by a four-man panel that included a retired supreme court judge and general, paints an alarming picture of Pakistan's storied spy agency -- one that hints strongly that ISI is either shockingly inept or duplicitous, or both. The members of the commission were given sweeping authority, and they seem to have used it in a refreshingly thorough manner, summoning more than two hundred witnesses, including Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of ISI and one of the most powerful men in Pakistan.

The report -- which took nine months to produce and another 15 to be leaked -- goes well beyond examining bin Laden's presence in the country, questioning the wisdom of delegating Pakistan's entire counterterrorism effort to a single, secret, military agency that is too proud to share its burden with anyone else. 

At a time when much of the domestic outrage over the raid centers around the Pakistani military's inability to defend against the American incursion, the commission turned the question on its head, saying the best defense would have been capturing al Qaeda's leader a long time ago. 

Refusing to rule out "some degree of connivance inside or outside the government," the commission places the blame for failing to find bin Laden on the ISI. The agency's "naivete and its lack of commitment to eradicating organized extremism, ignorance and violence," the report says, "is the single biggest threat to Pakistan."

At times literary in its retelling, the report gives us the clearest picture so far of what life was like for the 9/11 mastermind in the years leading up to his spectacular demise. Bin Laden was found in an expansive three-story home -- complete with 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire -- situated less than a mile from Kakul, the country's top military academy.

The home's size and placement were not lost on the commission, which questioned why it never came under suspicion so close to the Kakul academy. Pakistan's top military officials, constant targets of al Qaeda and the Taliban, must have passed by the home on a regular basis. Surely, someone in charge of their security detail must have made a mental note to look into what paranoid Pakistani lived in that fortress.

The house had four separate electricity and gas connections, an illegal third story, and its walls were well beyond the maximum height allowed by the cantonment, the military housing scheme the house was situated in. The owners also never paid their taxes, and bin Laden's two handlers, brothers Ibrahim and Abrar, used fabricated identities. All of this should have raised red flags -- except that Pakistan is notorious for its failure to enforce the law.

The cantonment that bin Laden called home contained between 7,000 and 8,000 unregistered buildings, according to the officials who were supposed to regulate them. And less than one percent of Pakistanis pay their taxes. At checkpoints ringing highly secured Pakistani cantonments like the one in Abbottabad, moreover, it is the poor who are disproportionately stopped -- the rickshaw driver, the day laborer on a bicycle, the tired student going home on a motorcycle at the end of a long day.

Of course, authorities simply cannot check everyone all the time. The commission's report acknowledges this fact, however, saying the only institution in Pakistan with the resources to look for high-value targets like bin Laden was the ISI.

"The actual role in counterterrorism," the report says of civilian institutions, "was at best marginal, and in the tracking of Osama bin Laden it was precisely zero."

The lesson from the bin Laden saga, the commission concludes, is that police and other civilian institutions should be given the resources and space to do their jobs. The survivors of the bin Laden raid, the report says, should have been handed over to the police, which should have tracked down what kind of support network they had in Pakistan. The report laments the fact that the Bin Laden raid investigation, like every other major terrorism case in Pakistan, was handled by the ISI, instead of civilian institutions that are readily accountable to others. 

Bin Laden lived with two other families -- dozens of people in all -- in the same home for six years. Before that, he was not sitting in a cave, but moving around what the report refers to as many of Pakistan's "settled areas." He and his family spent time in cities like Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar. Bin Laden might not have had a Facebook account, but his social network was vast, and some of its members had even been touched by the otherwise non-existent Pakistani state.

We know that Bin Laden's couriers went to extreme lengths to hide their tracks. But they nonetheless had social lives at least until 2003, when they were spooked by the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the self-proclaimed operational mastermind of the 9/11 attacks

Ibrahim's wife Maryam, who was extensively quoted in the commission's report, recalls that her wedding party took place at KSM's home in Karachi. Bin Ladin's wife Amal attended the party, and the pair travelled together to Peshawar, where they met up with a clean-shaven Osama bin Laden and another man dressed in a police uniform. From there, they went to Swat, where they lived for six to eight months, and bin Laden was apparently confident enough to go to the bazaar with his family.

KSM visited them in 2003, bringing his family along and staying for two weeks. A month later, he was picked up in Rawalpindi in a joint U.S.-Pakistani operation. The bin Ladens split up after KSM's arrest, meeting later in the small city of Haripur, where they lived in a relatively small home for two years. Amal gave birth to two children in a local hospital.

As the commission's report points out, the ISI had sole custody of bin Laden's surviving family members for five months before the commission questioned them. Yet the ISI failed to pursue any of these leads. It did not track down where bin Laden's wives lived in Pakistan, who arranged for their stay and transportation or whether or not their stories were corroborated by other evidence.

Bin Laden's oldest -- and reportedly his favorite -- wife, Khairiah, lived in Iranian custody from 2002 until 2010. After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, she fled there with other members of bin Laden's family, including his son Saad bin Laden. How she got into Pakistan is still a major question. As the report points out, one possibility is that the Iranian government and al Qaeda arranged to exchange an Iranian diplomat for Khairiah. At any rate, Khairiah arrived in Pakistan in 2010 and travelled through Quetta to Waziristan. From there, she received a message from bin Laden inviting her to Abbottabad, where she arrived only three months before the raid that killed her husband.

Since there are no regular checkpoints on the highways connecting cities like Quetta and Islamabad, it is understandable that the police -- wholly underpaid and overstretched -- were not able to intercept Khairiah or bin Laden's other wives as they moved around Pakistan. But each of these movements required a support network on the ground: drivers, guides, safe houses. The ISI, the only institution in the country capable of tracing such a network, failed to do so.

And Abbottabad itself should have been on the ISI's radar as a hotbed of al Qaeda's activity.

In 2005, the ISI had helped capture Abu Farraj al-Libbi, the man that replaced Mohammed as al Qaeda's third in command, and they knew he had lived in Abbottabad starting in 2003. They had even tried to capture him at one point in a raid a few miles from bin Laden's home. Al-Libbi likely needed a local support network. The report points out that if the ISI had any more information about al-Libbi's stay in Abbottabad, they did not see fit to share it with the commission.

Also connected to Abbottabad was Umar Patek, an al Qaeda operative that helped plan the 2002 bombings in Bali, who traveled to the city in early 2011. The ISI claims he was only stopping there on his way to Afghanistan, but as the commission points out, he was more likely there to meet with bin Laden. Patek was captured in Abbottabad just two months before the bin Laden killing, and he was in Pakistani custody for four months afterwards. Yet, according to the commission's report, the ISI apparently failed to extract any useful information from Patek about the al Qaeda network in Abbottabad.

The commission blames the ISI for the fact that none of these leads were followed up on, saying civilians were unaware of Abbottabad's connections to al Qaeda. The ISI, in contrast, was "well aware of their presence but unwilling to share information."

The report also contains the extensive, candid testimony of Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the then head of the ISI (although one page is mysteriously missing from the leaked copy), It amounts to a damning illustration of why Pakistan's counterterrorism policy has failed.

Pakistan has lost 50,000 people -- including thousands of soldiers that were answerable to men like Pasha -- to terrorist attacks since 2004. Yet Pasha seemed to be stuck in another world when talking to the commission. He rightly pointed out that ISI was overburdened, but then blamed those who dared to criticize his agency's role in securing Pakistan, repeating the tired narrative that "the first line of national defense" was being attacked by "emotional" people that could be bought with "money, women, and alcohol."

To be sure, the United States has not worked well with the ISI, which some American officials claim have helped militants escape in the past. As the report points out, "there was never any trust between the two intelligence organizations ... [just an] understanding due to overlapping interests."

When, after years of silence, U.S. officials raised the prospect of bin Laden living in Pakistan in 2010, the ISI asked for details and offered to help. They never got a reply. At one point, the CIA gave the ISI four phone numbers to track, but did not disclose that they were related to bin Laden's handlers. As a result, the ISI failed to track the numbers, thinking the issue was of low importance.

Pasha, echoing a number of Pakistani military leaders, complained that there was not enough legal cover for his agency to detain and investigate suspected militants. The commission dismissed this, saying "in a democracy, an intelligence organization must be accountable and answerable to political oversight."

If Pakistanis were looking for insight into the bin Laden saga from the ISI, they did not get any. In fact, the problem the commission uncovered was one that has been known to Pakistanis for some time now. The ISI, which "neither had constitutional or legal authority, nor the necessary expertise and competence," for counterterrorism, was taking up the responsibility of civilian institutions that were "even less competent," because they had no long-term experience running the country. "The premier intelligence institution's religiosity replaced accountability at the expense of professional competence," the report concludes.

In other words, Pakistanis cannot depend on agencies like the ISI -- which either through incompetence or outright complicity failed to track down bin Laden -- to defend its borders, whether the threat is coming from a U.S. raid, or a Taliban suicide bomber. Pakistani civilians, who have just voted in historic elections, must own their own counterterrorism policy. In the end, they are the ones that stand to lose the most.

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Israel's New Man in Washington

Is Ron Dermer too right wing to win friends and influence "allies" in the White House?

There's a new big macher in town. On Tuesday, July 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially named Ron Dermer to be his next ambassador to Washington, formally bringing current ambassador Michael Oren's four-year tenure to an end in the fall. In replacing Oren with Dermer (full disclosure: Oren was my professor in graduate school at Harvard University, and we have maintained a good relationship), Netanyahu is replacing one American-turned-Israeli with another, but that is where the similarities end. Dermer will have big shoes to fill, as Oren has done an admirable job as Israel's ambassador to the United States during a time that has been fraught with potential peril for the special relationship between the two countries. Although Dermer will have some advantages that Oren did not, he also has a history of his own that must be overcome.

While Israeli envoys have traditionally reported to the Foreign Ministry, Oren has been in the unique position of bypassing traditional channels and reporting directly to Netanyahu. This is because Oren didn't come from within the ranks of the Foreign Ministry and so wasn't in any way beholden to former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But it's also an indication of how far the Foreign Ministry has fallen out of favor under Netanyahu's purview. Netanyahu has sidelined the Foreign Ministry and has run Israeli foreign policy directly out of his office, using personal aides for important diplomatic tasks. While some analysts, such as Aaron David Miller, claim that Oren is outside Netanyahu's inner circle and thus has had a diminished role, there is no doubt that the outgoing ambassador has played a crucial role in serving as a critical communicator between U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.

One need only look at the results of the past four years to see how well Oren has comported himself in his position. During Obama's and Netanyahu's respective first terms, all manner of analysts were predicting an Israeli strike on Iran and a policy of unfettered settlement building, both of which were going to lead to terrible clashes between Washington and Jerusalem. Indeed, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed during a trip to Israel by a surprise announcement of new building in East Jerusalem, the immediate fallout was swift. Yet the fears over Iran and exploding settlement growth were never realized, and the actual working relationship between the United States and Israel is as strong as it has ever been in terms of security cooperation and coordination. One has to assume that Oren has played a key role in all this by communicating to the Israeli government the mood in Washington and the dangers inherent in moving unilaterally against Iran or sabotaging the peace process.

One of the Israeli ambassador's primary tasks is making sure that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem is as smooth as possible, and not only is the institutional relationship humming along, but the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has immeasurably improved over time. During Obama's first term, low points included Netanyahu publicly lecturing the U.S. president while the cameras were rolling during Netanyahu's visit to the White House in May 2011, and Obama later returning the favor by denigrating Netanyahu over an open microphone while talking privately to then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In contrast, during Obama's trip to Israel this past March, the two men joked with each other, smiled, and seemed far more comfortable than they ever had before. Although the credit for this cannot be laid entirely at Oren's feet, one should not overlook his part in it either after four years of his public insistence that Obama and Netanyahu have a solid working relationship.

The other major task that an Israeli ambassador has is serving as a representative to the American Jewish community, and in this Oren has been peerless. Aside from speaking perfect, American-accented English (as befitting someone who was born and raised in New Jersey and has degrees from Columbia and Princeton universities), Oren is uncommonly eloquent and erudite, with a gift for public speaking. On college campuses and in synagogues of all denominations, Oren is an extremely popular figure, and he has pushed the Israeli government on issues important to American Jews, such as resolving the controversy over the Women of the Wall prayer group seeking to hold female egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall. He is also a talented communicator in the mass media to the wider American public on subjects concerning Israel's security and interests, and he has done yeoman's work in explaining and defending Israeli government positions. Given Oren's street cred as a popular, respected historian and someone whose publicly stated views before his appointment as ambassador tended to be more dovish than Netanyahu's, Dermer is going to be fighting an uphill battle to match Oren's esteemed reputation and effectiveness as an advocate for his country.

Like Oren, Dermer is no stranger to the United States, having grown up in Florida in a locally prominent political family (his father and brother both served as mayor of Miami Beach). Dermer went to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and became involved in Republican politics before moving to Israel in 1996 and going to work for politician Natan Sharansky and then Netanyahu. But unlike Oren, Dermer has a history with the Obama administration that must be overcome. Whether the charge is true or not, there is a widespread perception that Dermer was behind a covert campaign on Netanyahu's part to support Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. This means that despite having the complete confidence of Netanyahu -- which is the prime motivating factor behind his appointment -- Dermer walks into a situation of immediate distrust and suspicion when it comes to the administration and Democrats in Washington. His history of working for political consultant Frank Luntz and the Republican Party won't help. In addition, where Oren is generally viewed as smoothly diplomatic, Dermer has a reputation for abrasiveness. His December 2011 letter to the New York Times explaining Netanyahu's refusal to write an op-ed for the newspaper's prestigious opinion section, while red meat to Israel's more hawkish supporters, is not the type of communication that will win him friends in the White House or make it easier for him to work with administration officials.

The flip side is that, in some ways, Dermer is set up to succeed in a way that Oren never was. Aside from his deep connections all over Washington from his time working under Luntz and his stint in the mid-2000s as the man in charge of economic affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Dermer also has lots of firsthand experience with the upper echelons of the Obama administration, having served as Netanyahu's top aide and right-hand man for the last four years and heavily participating in diplomatic discussions between the two countries. Dermer also benefits from an extraordinarily close relationship with Netanyahu, which allows him to speak with an authority that is unusual: There is no daylight between him and the prime minister. Any need there may have been in the past for back channels -- a role that previously would have been filled by Dermer himself -- will be entirely eliminated with Dermer at the helm.

Perhaps most of all, Dermer will benefit from a new environment on the peace process front. Netanyahu has demonstrated a willingness to be more pragmatic on the two-state solution since his re-election in January, and it is possible that he has reached a tipping point on wanting to negotiate in earnest with the Palestinians. It will make Dermer's job a lot easier if the next year or two sees Israel cooperating with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's fervent efforts to bring both parties back to the bargaining table with a renewed push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Rather than having to deflect and mollify the White House's anger at Netanyahu's intransigence, Dermer might find himself on the receiving end of a much sunnier reception from the Obama administration. Paradoxically, it'll be easier for Dermer to play the bad cop on occasion when it comes to peace process specifics if his government has built up a reservoir of goodwill by making concessions requested by Washington. Even if Dermer has been viewed in the past as an obstacle to a two-state solution by arguing against it at every turn, events may be overtaking that reputation by making it irrelevant.

Dermer may not have the same diplomatic tact or communications deftness as Oren, but his strong relationship with Netanyahu and events beyond his control might be all that he needs to be successful. If he can transition from his current mode of looking out first and foremost for his boss's interests to looking out for Israel's interests as a whole -- and there is no reason to think that he can't -- he will be primed for a successful stint as Netanyahu's man in Washington. While Israel is about to lose its most talented English-language spokesman, the blow will feel less acute if Dermer is able to use his advantages to Israel's favor.

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