CIA-operated Predator drones may launch strikes against Usama bin Laden without prior permission from Pakistan, according to people familiar with the standing agreement between the U.S. and Islamabad.
In an exclusive report, one source told The Washington Times that the agreement was granted by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf early in the Iraqi war if U.S. forces located bin Laden in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where he is thought to be in hiding.
The arrangement was disclosed to The Washington Times as frustration grows in the Pentagon and in the CIA over bin Laden's ability to avoid capture seven years into the war. Pakistan prohibits U.S. military forces on its soil, limiting the American military ground presence to scores of CIA officers and paramilitary officials.
Nadeem Kiani, spokesman at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, declined to comment on the purported bin Laden deal to The Washington Times, but said Pakistan is ready to strike against bin Laden if he is located inside the country.
Pakistan allowed the CIA to secretly launch missile-equipped Predators from its soil into Afghanistan during the war to oust the Taliban, the paper reported. Pakistan has continued to allow unmanned CIA planes to fly over the country.
Earlier this year, Musharraf rejected a Bush administration request to allow more CIA officials into Pakistan.
"What I can tell you is that the president has a strong, overarching commitment to make sure that we track down and bring to justice Usama bin Laden and other top members of Al Qaeda," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters Monday.
The Washington Times said the arrangement with Pakistan was confirmed by a second source — a former U.S. intelligence officer who spent time in Afghanistan. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
Finding bin Laden remains a very difficult task, U.S. officials told the paper.
"It's a needle in a haystack," one intelligence official told The Washington Times.