WASHINGTON – The CIA is considering greater coordination and information sharing to help restore a once-promising relationship with Pakistan's intelligence agency that was badly damaged when a CIA security contractor shot two Pakistanis dead in Lahore earlier this year, U.S. officials said Monday.
The agency's tentative olive branch follows a peacemaking visit between CIA Director Leon Panetta and his Pakistani counterpart, the head of the country's Inter-Services Intelligence. The two had lunch at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., as the two spy agencies work to re-establish contacts the U.S. sees as vital to counterterrorism operations.
The Pakistanis want the American agency to identify all its employees in Pakistan and shrink its overall agency staff, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence. Pakistani officials also want advance notice of CIA drone strikes aimed at militants in its tribal areas, and fewer strikes overall.
U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan occur with the tacit approval of the Pakistani government and limited coordination of targets, but Pakistan officially denies the cooperation. U.S. military or CIA action inside Pakistan is highly unpopular, and the U.S.-backed government risks losing legitimacy at home if it is seen as bending to U.S. wishes.
The U.S. spy agency is considering Pakistan's request for more information but sees other demands as nonstarters, according to one U.S. official briefed on the talks. The Pakistani request for more visibility is being discussed, the official said.
After the meeting between Panetta and the ISI chief, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, CIA spokesman George Little said, "The CIA-ISI relationship remains on solid footing."
Earlier this year, CIA security contractor Raymond Allen Davis shot two Pakistanis he claimed tried to rob him, stoking anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and leading to one of the most severe breaches in relations between the two governments. High-level contacts between the governments were suspended for weeks.
ISI officials say the agency's joint counterterrorist operations with the CIA have been on hold since Davis was arrested, with cooperation limited to some sharing of information. Pasha is also angry over being named in a civil lawsuit in the United States filed by family members of victims of a November 2008 attack in Mumbai, India.
The relationship was further damaged when, days after Davis was released in mid-March, a CIA drone strike hit what Pakistani officials say was a meeting of tribal elders, infuriating Pakistan's intelligence agency and military. U.S. officials say those hit were militants.
The mutual complaints reveal a wide gulf in the relationship that one meeting is unlikely to bridge. U.S. intelligence and military officials believe factions in the Pakistani intelligence agency support Taliban and other militant groups, which are killing U.S. troops just across the border in Afghanistan.
Former CIA officials expressed skepticism that the ISI could be trusted to fight terrorism on its own without the current level of CIA staffing on the ground, citing the ISI's alliance with the Haqqani terrorist organization and the rise of the Taliban after the U.S. walked away from Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet Union's defeat.
Pakistani officials gripe that the CIA has been freelancing on its soil, running dozens of U.S. citizens doing low-level espionage missions in their country. Former CIA officials say the ISI believes many of the agency's operatives on the ground are gathering information about Pakistan's nuclear program and trying to infiltrate the ISI, not just fighting terrorism.
The CIA's refusal to claim CIA security contractor Raymond Allen Davis as its own in the initial weeks after his arrest fed that belief, Pakistani officials say, further fracturing the trust between the two agencies.
Only after the CIA admitted that Davis, a former Special Forces soldier, worked for the agency did the ISI agree to step in and persuade the families of the dead to accept money in lieu of prosecuting Davis, Pakistani officials say, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.
Since that incident, Pakistani officials say their joint missions to capture terror suspects with CIA officers had slowed, compared to the previous year where the two agencies went on more than 100 joint missions. In one of those raids, in 2010, they captured a high-ranking Taliban member, Mullah Ghani Barader, Pakistani and U.S. officials say.
But Pakistani and U.S. officials confirm that a CIA tip led to Pakistan's capture earlier this year of Indonesian Umar Patek, one of the accused masterminds behind the Bali bombing. And U.S. officials add that some joint missions have been carried out despite the recent diplomatic impasse.
The spy agencies have overcome lows before. During President George W. Bush's first term, the ISI became enraged after it shared intelligence with the United States, only to learn that the CIA station chief at the time passed that information to the British. The incident caused a serious row, one that threatened the CIA's relationship with the ISI and deepened levels of distrust between the two sides. At the time Pakistan almost threw the CIA station chief out of the country.
Earlier this year the CIA dispatched a senior agency officer to become the new station chief after the previous one was pulled out for safety reasons. With the CIA's relationship with the ISI failing to improve, there are questions about this new station chief's effectiveness.
Associated Press writer Adam Goldman contributed to this report.