WASHINGTON – The CIA has pulled its top spy out of Pakistan after terrorists threatened to kill him, current and former U.S. officials said, an unusual move for the U.S. and a complication on the front lines of the fight against al-Qaida.
The CIA station chief was in transit Thursday after a Pakistani lawsuit earlier this month accused him of killing civilians in missile strikes.
The lawsuit listed a name for the station chief, but The Associated Press has learned the name is not correct. The AP is not publishing the station chief's name because he remains undercover and his name is classified.
CIA airstrikes from unmanned aircraft have killed terrorist leaders but have led to accusations in Pakistan that the strikes kill innocent people. The U.S. does not acknowledge the missile strikes, but there have been more than 100 such attacks this year — more than double the amount in 2009.
The lawsuit blew the American spy's cover, leading to threats against him and forcing the U.S. to call him home, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"Our station chiefs routinely encounter major risk as they work to keep America safe, and they've been targeted by terrorists in the past," CIA spokesman George Little said. "They are courageous in the face of danger, and their security is obviously a top priority for the CIA, especially when there's an imminent threat."
The Pakistani lawsuit also named CIA Director Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Demonstrators in the heart of the capital have carried placards bearing the officer's name as listed in the lawsuit and urging him to leave the country.
Shahzad Akbar, the lawyer bringing the case, said he got the name listed in the lawsuit from local journalists. He said he included the name because he wanted to sue a CIA operative living within the jurisdiction of the Islamabad court.
A Pakistani intelligence officer said the country's intelligence service, the ISI, knew the identity of the station chief, but had "no clue" how the name listed in the lawsuit was leaked.
The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because his agency, like many around the world, does not allow its operatives to be named in the media.
The CIA's work is unusually difficult in Pakistan, one of the United States' most important and at times frustrating counterterrorism allies.
The station chief in Islamabad operates as a secret general in the U.S. war against terrorism. He runs the Predator drone program targeting terrorists, handles some of the CIA's most urgent and sensitive tips and collaborates closely with Pakistan's ISI, one of the most important relationships in the spy world.
Almost a year ago seven CIA officers and contractors were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. Six other agency officers were wounded in the attack, one of the deadliest in CIA history.
It's rare for a CIA station chief to see his cover blown. In 1999, an Israeli newspaper revealed the identity of the station chief in Tel Aviv. In 2001, an Argentine newspaper printed a picture of the Buenos Aires station chief and details about him. In both instances, the station chiefs were recalled to the U.S.
Associated Press writer Chris Brummitt in Islamabad contributed to this report.