In an excerpt of her new book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014, Carlotta Gall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times asserts that the United States had "direct evidence that the ISI [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence] chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of [Osama] bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad," and that the ISI ran a special desk assigned to handle the al Qaeda leader.
Peter Bergen, director of the International Security Program at the New America Foundation and editor of the South Asia Channel, disputed these claims, writing in a recent CNN piece that he was "convinced that there is no evidence that anyone in the Pakistani government, military or intelligence agencies knowingly sheltered bin Laden."
Gall was able to sit down with Bergen at a recent event at the New America Foundation to discuss their differing opinions and the following is an excerpt of that conversation, which has been edited and condensed.
Bergen: So, turning to bin Laden, there are three levels of assertions in the book. Let's start with the ones that seem the most reasonable from my point of view: The correspondence with Mullah Omar and the leader of the LET [Lashkar-e-Taiba]. Now that seems entirely plausible, those documents have not come out publicly, but there's certainly been discussion of those kinds of communications.
Gall: Yeah, and the people who have seen them talk about them.
Bergen: So bin Laden was corresponding with a lot of people while he was in Abbottabad, as you know, including with senior members of al Qaeda. And there was a courier system of cut-outs, one of the reasons it took so long to find him, it took the United States arguably half a trillion dollars in terms of our efforts on the intelligence side after 9/11 to, even though we really wanted to find him, to kind of get into this courier system and to understand it. So this courier system was pretty good. And I think people within al Qaeda didn't know where bin Laden was living. They didn't need to know.
Bergen: So I think you could say this correspondence was interesting, but it doesn't necessarily prove the case because there would have been courier cut outs all along the way between the recipients of these letters and bin Laden.
Bergen: The second level is the Pakistani government official talking to a U.S. government official who told them that Pasha [Ahmed Shuja Pasha, former ISI chief], a conversation that you say might indicate - which is both hearsay and interpretive. Right?
And the third level is the desk. The Osama bin Laden desk. Now that seems like something that is real - it either exists or doesn't exist. And I guess the question is why, well first, do we know the name of the person who ran this desk, do we have any more information about this desk? Is there anything that you can say about it?
Gall: I'm afraid I can't say anything more. It's carefully worded in the book.
Bergen: Was it called the Osama bin Laden desk? What was it called?
Gall: I know a bit more, but I'm afraid I can't tell you because, and this is very important that people know, it's very dangerous for the person who gave this detail. There's going to be a witch hunt already. And I was led to this person by someone else - who's a journalist -- and it's very dangerous for that Pakistani journalist. And I have a quick wrap up in my prologue how dangerous it is for Pakistani journalists: 42 have been killed in the last ten years in the course of their work. And some, as we know, have been detained by the ISI and killed. There's a lot of Baloch journalists who have ended up killed and dumped on the roadside. It's dangerous for the people who helped me get that and I don't want to say anything more.
Bergen: Sure, understood.
Gall: And in fact there's a restriction on names because of that, because of what consequences could be brought.
Bergen: Ok, it's a huge scoop if true and we have some of the most aggressive journalists in the world in both in Pakistan and the United States and I guess the part of me that's quite skeptical about this is, why hasn't anyone else followed up in any meaningful way on this now that you've put it out there?
And secondly, why hasn't the newspaper -- your newspaper -- put it in the newspaper instead of the magazine, which is a sort of separate entity.
Gall: Good question. I never offered it to them, I'd say. Yeah, I don't know if we even talked about that. Now I will say though that when the book came out, or the magazine piece, I forewarned the people who worked for the New York Times in Pakistan. You probably know that Declan Walsh, our New York Times Western expatriate correspondent is banned from Pakistan at the moment and is living in London, so our local reporters had to really lie low because of the fear of any backlash. They didn't actually work with me on the book, but we were very worried about their safety. So I don't know, but I haven't talked to the editors about why they haven't followed up. But it is difficult. I will admit, I could not get a second source to confirm this. I tried it out on U.S. officials who said you can go with that -- you can be confidant you're on the right track, but they couldn't confirm it. So yeah some stories you only get one source and perhaps we won't [get another] for some years. I believe it will come out eventually. But it's a very difficult one because essentially for a Pakistani to confirm it, they're committing treason in the Pakistani military's eyes. So you're asking someone to really go against his own country -- that's how they view it.
Bergen- Ok, let me add some other notes of skepticism. As you know, I wrote a book about bin Laden and the hunt for bin Laden. I discovered that one of the wives who was living on the compound didn't know that bin Laden was living on the compound. He was hiding from people on the compound. We had satellite coverage on the compound from August 2010 to May 2011, right? We know that he never left the second or third floor, so he wasn't going anywhere to meet with people and no one was coming here to meet with him. So that gives me pause, if there was sort of a controller or someone he was in touch with on the Pakistani side.
Another thing you have to always ask is: Who benefits? Cui bono? So, on the Pakistani side, as we discussed before we came -- we had a private discussion -- [former Pakistani president Pervez] Musharraf is lucky to be alive after those two very serious assassination attempts in 2003, the person who investigated those attempts was, was who?
Gall: Kayani [Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, former chief of army staff in the Pakistan Army].
Bergen: Gen. Kayani. So he was in charge of the very serious investigation of the Musharraf assassination attempts which were carried out by al Qaeda, Abu Faraj al Libi, who was the guy responsible and who was in touch with bin Laden, and is now in U.S. custody as a result of that investigation. So the question is: Kayani's Pasha's boss, why would he countenance a bin Laden desk, when he went to great efforts to break out this al Qaeda ring that had tried to kill his boss, Gen. Musharraf? That's kind of puzzling; it's like what's the point?
Then on the U.S. side, you know, there probably is a large number of people in the government who have very dim views of Pakistan, and the U.S. government is not unitary, CIA has one view, CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] has another view, NSC [the National Security Council] might have another view, and it's a very large group of people and there are lots of people who would be willing if there was a real smoking gun, would be willing to let it out. And I guess my question is, if it exists and we have these thousands of pages of documents --bin Laden had no idea he'd ever be found -- right? So these documents are pretty effective, they're sort of bin Laden unplugged, right? So if he had a bin Laden desk, wouldn't he have communication with them in some shape or form?
Gall: Yeah, but I think it wouldn't have been written.
Bergen: Well we've established that nobody's visiting the compound. He's not leaving, for at least a year that we know of, and that's when we had satellite coverage over it.
Gall: Right, but I think people could visit, couldn't they?
Bergen: No one visited the compound.
Gall: And you see neighbors saw the women go out to the hospital and stuff.
Bergen: There were 24 people living on the compound, right?
Gall: So the courier and the brother and their wives came and went, and some of the Arab women went to the hospital, we know that as well.
Bergen: So people might have visited the compound disguised as women, you're saying?
Gall: Yeah well, sometimes they saw, they knew there was an aunty, and we know he had three wives there, so it could have been one of the wives, the two Pakistani women and an aunty in full black burqa who was seen going to the hospital. And, his Yemeni wife gave birth in the hospital so the women were going out to see doctors or whatever.
But you make some very good points. But let me show that for each point, there's another point. So, he didn't travel. But then we have this recorded intelligence briefing of 2009 where bin Laden met with Saifullah Akhtar [a senior al Qaeda leader] in Kohat, Pakistan. Now that was in the Daily Times before the raid, I tracked it down after the raid, but it was an anonymously written report. I found the reporter. I found the person who leaked it, and it came from Pakistan -- all the Pakistani intelligence agencies, civilian and military, had seen that report, it was a combined intelligence report that bin Laden was in Pakistan. So my point is, if the Pakistan intelligence know that he's meeting militant leaders and he's in Pakistan, why weren't they hunting for him harder?
Bergen: Well, I don't think they wanted to find him, necessarily.
Gall: Second thing is, Libi, yes, they did a very hard investigation tracking down Libi; he did try to kill Musharraf. At the time, I agree with you, they did a very serious investigation. They found Libi. They tracked him, they got him. But he, Musharraf also writes in his book that they nearly caught Libi in Abbottabad and he had the use of three safe houses in Abbottabad and they raided the wrong one and he got away. You know, they raid one and he was actually in another, and he escaped. And Musharraf writes about that. So why aren't they checking every house in Abbottabad?
Bergen: Well, this goes to the question of competence.
Gall: Don't give me that one, I just don't buy that. And I've got a cabinet minister in my book saying the Pakistani armed forces are more competent than anyone else. Another minister who says that after the Lal Masjid siege, he says to an ISI general, every morning you have on your desk the minutes of who I met the night before and what we talked about, so don't tell me you don't know that there's weapons and militants in Lal Masjid just 100 yards from your headquarters. So the idea that they're incompetent -- they're not.
Bergen: Well look, all human beings are incompetent, it's just a general explanation.
Gall: Well ok, they're also brilliant. The ISI are brilliant.
Bergen: No, I don't accept the idea that they're brilliant. Because if they're brilliant then why would they be doing this strategy that you point out that is so self-defeating?
Gall: Well, they think they're going to achieve through chaos what they want to achieve -- which is dominance of the region. I agree, I think it's a ruinous strategy, but I think they really believe in it.
Bergen: One final point on the bin Laden issue. Adm. [Mike] Mullen's last official act [as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] after 27 visits to Pakistan was to testify before a Senate committee and say that the Haqqani network was owned and operated by the ISI. Presumably he has access to all the secret information the United States has, right?
Bergen: It's kind of strange that he didn't take this opportunity to say that they were also harboring bin Laden, since as you know, it went down pretty badly in Pakistan, that public statement.
Gall: Mullen was particularly angry about the Haqqani arm, because he just had -- and I showed in the book -- before he made that speech, they just had these devastating attacks in Afghanistan, there was a huge truck bomb that went into a base in Wardak and it was unbelievable -- they didn't kill many people, but they wounded 90 plus or 70 plus, I'd have to check.
Bergen: He was more angry at the Haqqani network than al Qaeda?
Gall: Well, he just had these two devastating attacks, there's this truck bomb that injured 70 plus American soldiers, and then they had this attack, one of these what they call a complex attack very close to the U.S. embassy -- to the point that the ambassador had to go into a bunker for 24 hours. And the battle raged right in Kabul around the American embassy and people going to the consulate got injured by mortars. So those two, I think, by then -- they were tracking Badruddin Haqqani's [one of the network's top commanders] phone for ages, and so I think they heard him directing the attacks, they knew he's calling from Waziristan, they know he's meeting with ISI officials, so I think Mullen's anger was because the proof was so clear.
You know, I had some very senior military people write to me after my story congratulating me and saying you're on the right track. I don't know what they know, but I don't think just because he [Mullen] didn't address the Osama issue [it] doesn't mean he [doesn't] knows things. I just think he had very, very clear evidence that made him particularly disappointed and angry about the Haqqanis because it was directly affecting American lives in Afghanistan and what kind of ally is that that's doing these things?
Bergen: Right. Well, what kind of ally would harbor the mastermind of 9/11? You know, because that was obviously when I reported my book, I talked on the record to Mullen; Mike Leiter, who ran the NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center]; Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time; Gen. [James] Cartwright, who was vice chairman of the joint chiefs; Michele Flournoy, who was head of policy at DoD; Mike Vickers, who was in charge of special operations; Tony Blinken, who is now the deputy national security advisor; Dennis McDonough, who is now the chief of staff; and the list goes on and on. This was the first question I had: "Was Pakistan cognizant of the bin laden being there?" And this was a huge debate they had at the NSC, they had five meetings. And all these people -- some of them are not fans of Pakistan -- they all universally said they did not know. Cameron Munter, who was ambassador at the time...
Gall: Well, I'll say that one senior official who I did try out this special desk on was amazed because he said we haven't got that, but he said it makes sense.
Bergen: It makes sense, but it feels for a lot of people, it's something they want to believe, but that's theology. That's not evidence.
Gall: No, but they can't necessarily get it. What Pakistani is going to say that to an American? It came to me differently, you know, as someone who is cooperating with a longtime Pakistani source. And persuading to let me have it is different than giving it to a CIA official so I think there's a difference in motivation in telling a journalist, a Pakistani journalist, first. So let's see. I'm sure it will come out, I really do believe this.
Actually, what I really do want to say is we shouldn't spend all our time debating the toss on this -- do you believe it, do you not? And I have a diplomat saying, we shouldn't have spent years and years saying are the Pakistanis supporting the Taliban or not, we should have actually said this is happening, this is what it looks like on the ground, what is our policy? I think the same with this because I believe Zawahiri is still in Pakistan, I know he is actually. I had quite a recent, very interesting tip that he was in Baluchistan, and so it's more not who's hiding him and why -- it's more what do we do about it? And that's I think really the main issue we should be looking at.
Author Photo/ New America Foundation