On 60 Minutes Sunday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made what CBS News rightly called a “remarkable” allegation. Secretary Clinton was first asked if the would-be Times Square bomber had ties to terrorists operating out of Pakistan. “There are connections,” Clinton responded before expressing some ambiguity as to the precise nature of those connections. (Other senior Obama administration, including Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan clarified those connections earlier in the day.)
Clinton was asked what message she would deliver to the Pakistanis in the wake of the Times Square attack. She answered:
It’s very clear. This is a threat that we share. We have a common enemy. There is no time to waste in going after that common enemy as hard and fast as we can. And we cannot tolerate having people encouraged, directed, trained and sent from Pakistan to attack us.
Then Clinton made the remarkable allegation:
I’m not saying that they’re at the highest levels, but I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda is, where Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is, and we expect more cooperation to help us bring to justice, capture or kill, those who attacked us on 9/11.
As 60 Minutes noted, this is not the first time Secretary Clinton has said something in this vein. She won’t back down from her controversial claim. And for that, she deserves credit.
While we do not know what specific intelligence Clinton is relying upon, it is more likely than not that “somewhere” in the Pakistani government there are officials who know where the senior terror leaders are. The most likely home for these officials is Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Late last year, for example, the Washington Times reported that the ISI helped move Mullah Omar from Quetta, where he was vulnerable to American drone attacks, to Karachi.
Too often senior American officials in Washington and abroad fail to state the obvious when it comes to our Pakistani ally. The nation of Pakistan is deeply divided, and these divisions are manifest in the Pakistani government. When she excluded officials at the “highest levels” from her assessment, Clinton was likely referring to Pakistan’s civilian government, including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Undoubtedly, Zardari and his ilk, as well as some top officials in other branches of the Pakistani government, have little knowledge of the terror network’s operations.
The same cannot be said for some members of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment, however. The establishment’s duplicity has been highlighted time and again. (See, for instance, this analysis that Bill Roggio and I published in December 2008, in the aftermath of the terrorist assault on Mumbai.)
On the one hand, Pakistan’s ISI has assisted the U.S. in efforts to track down top al Qaeda operatives. On the other hand, the ISI has continued to sponsor the Taliban and other jihadist organizations on Pakistani soil, both as proxies for fighting Pakistan’s regional foes, but also because the ISI contains a significant number of true believers. Some analysts believe that recent attacks inside Pakistan proper have increased the willingness of the ISI to hunt down their jihadist clients. (For instance, the Pakistanis captured top Taliban leader Mullah Baradar earlier this year.) This may be true, in part, but it is clear that the ISI continues to play its double game.
This Pakistani duplicity was most recently highlighted in a report by the United Nations commission investigating the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. (The report, which was released last month, can be read online at the UN’s web site.) While the UN did not point the finger directly at the ISI for Bhutto’s murder, the UN did blame the ISI for hampering its investigation. Here is what the UN said regarding this (emphasis added):
The investigation was severely hampered by intelligence agencies and other government officials, which impeded an unfettered search for the truth. More significantly, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) conducted parallel investigations, gathering evidence and detaining suspects. Evidence gathered from such parallel investigations was selectively shared with the police.
The Commission believes that the failure of the police to investigate effectively Ms Bhutto’s assassination was deliberate. These officials, in part fearing intelligence agencies’ involvement, were unsure of how vigorously they ought to pursue actions, which they knew, as professionals, they should have taken.
While praising the assistance provided by some Pakistani officials, the UN’s commission said it was “mystified, however, by the efforts of certain high-ranking government officials to obstruct access to Pakistani military and intelligence sources, as revealed in their public declarations.”
The UN did not have to state the obvious: There is a widespread belief that the ISI and other members of the Pakistani military-intelligence “establishment” (as it is called by the UN) pulled the strings on Bhutto’s assassination by terrorists.
In other words, the same sort of duplicity highlighted by Secretary Clinton was also manifest to the United Nations.
Secretary Clinton did not totally dismiss Pakistani cooperation against terrorism. Clinton said she had to “stand up” for the efforts the Pakistani government was taking to hunt down “terrorists within their own country.” But when she was asked whether she was “comfortable” with the level of cooperation the U.S. is receiving, she answered:
Well now, I didn’t say that. I’ve said we’ve gotten more cooperation and it’s been a real sea change in the commitment we’ve seen from the Pakistani government. We want more. We expect more. We’ve made it very clear that if, heaven forbid, an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful there would be very severe consequences.
Clinton declined to specifically identify the “consequences” of such a scenario, saying “I think I’ll let that speak for itself.”
The threat is palpable – both to Americans and the Pakistanis.
It is doubtful that there has been a “sea change” in the Pakistani government’s commitment to the fight, as Secretary Clinton claimed. And America does not have to wait for a “successful” attack to pressure the Pakistani government, or at least those parts of the government on America’s side, to do more. America and Pakistan have to stop terrorists such as Faisal Shahzad before they have their finger on the proverbial trigger. A more lethal terrorist may be in the terror network’s pipelines.
Still, Secretary Clinton deserves credit for highlighting a key dimension of this threat that is often downplayed or ignored.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.