Bin Laden had support in Pakistan, Obama says

But government’s role remains unclear

By Joby Warrick and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post / May 9, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden benefited from “some sort of support network’’ inside Pakistan, although the United States has not determined whether Pakistan’s intelligence, military, or political establishment knew about the Al Qaeda leader’s secret hideout, President Obama said yesterday.

“We don’t know whether there might have been some people inside of government, people outside of government, and that’s something that we have to investigate and, more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate,’’ Obama said.

Thomas Donilon, the White House national security adviser, said Pakistani officials have not granted American investigators access to crucial information gathered since the raid of the hideout, including allowing interviews with bin Laden’s three widows and other family members now in Pakistan’s custody.

Interviews with the widows might answer questions about whether Paki stan harbored the terrorist leader, Donilon said.

He said Islamabad remains a crucial partner in battling Al Qaeda, despite new strains in US-Pakistani relations a week after bin Laden was killed by US commandos in Abbottabad, an army garrison town 35 miles from the capital.

“As I sit here with you, I don’t have any information that would indicate foreknowledge by the political military or intelligence leadership in Pakistan,’’ Donilon said on ABC’s “This Week with Christiane Amanpour,’’ one of four television news programs he visited yesterday.

Obama ordered the raid after deciding the risks were outweighed by the possibility “of us finally getting our man’’ despite a decade of frustration, the president said in an interview broadcast yesterday on CBS’s “60 Minutes.’’ The helicopter raid “was the longest 40 minutes of my life,’’ he said, with the possible exception of when his daughter Sasha became sick with meningitis as an infant.

In the interview, Obama said that as nervous as he was about the raid, he did not lose sleep over the possibility that bin Laden might be killed. Anyone who says the coordinator of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks did not deserve his fate “needs to have their head examined,’’ he said.

Obama acknowledged having only circumstantial evidence placing bin Laden at the compound. There was not a single photograph or confirmed sighting of the man, he said. “At the end of the day, this was still a 55-45 situation,’’ he said.

In deciding to proceed with what was the most promising opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden, Obama rejected the advice of a substantial number of his national security advisers, who worried that the plan to send ground troops deep into Pakistan was too risky, he said.

“I said to myself that if we have a good chance of not completely defeating but badly disabling Al Qaeda, then it was worth both the political risks as well as the risks to our men,’’ he said.

Several US officials and congressional leaders in recent days have suggested that Pakistani officials must have known of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, or else they were grossly incompetent in failing to notice his nearly six-year presence in a town that is home to one of the country’s premier military academies.

Donilon’s efforts to cool the anti-Pakistan rhetoric in Washington were echoed by others yesterday.

Senator John F. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Pakistan was helpful in the capture of bin Laden, even though the White House chose not to notify Islamabad of the raid until after it ended.

“Even in the getting of Osama bin Laden, the Pakistanis were helpful,’’ the Massachusetts Democrat said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.’’ “We have people on the ground in Pakistan because they allow us to have them. We actually worked with them on certain parts of the intelligence that helped to lead to him.’’

“They have been extraordinarily cooperative — and at some political cost to them— in helping us to take out 16 of the top 20 Al Qaeda leaders with a drone program that we have in the western part of the country,’’ Kerry added.

Kerry defended both the president’s decision to order the raid and the slaying of bin Laden. The administration has offered shifting accounts of the events that unfolded in the 40 minutes the SEALs were inside bin Laden’s compound, most recently saying he was unarmed but appeared to be reaching for a weapon when he was shot.

“I think those SEALs did exactly what they should have done,’’ Kerry said. “And we need to shut up and move on about . . . the realities of what happened in that building.’’

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said: “Pakistan is a critical factor in the war against terror, our war, the world’s war against it, simply because there are a lot of terrorists in Pakistan.’’

Pakistani anger over the unannounced military raid continued to pose obstacles to efforts to exploit intelligence uncovered during the raid, US officials acknowledged. Donilon said Pakistan has not agreed to give US officials access to bin Laden’s widows and other relatives who survived the raid.

A Pakistani intelligence official said yesterday that that his government needed permission from the wives’ home countries before Pakistan could allow US officials to question them. One of the wives is from Yemen; the official said he did not know the other wives’ nationalities.

Donilon said US officials also will mine bin Laden’s secrets by poring over an intelligence haul seized at the time of his death. “This is the largest cache of intelligence derived from the scene of any single terrorist,’’ he said.

In interviews in recent days, several local officials in Abbottabad and elsewhere in Pakistan continued to express doubt that government authorities were unaware of bin Laden’s presence in the Bilal Town neighborhood.

A senior police official in another area of Pakistan said he would be “amazed’’ if neighbors had not reported suspicious activity about the house to police in Abbottabad. The police official, who is not authorized to speak publicly, previously served as a district-level police chief in four areas and said he and his officers frequently advised residents to keep an eye on their neighbors and report newcomers.

“Once a week I would get a call from anonymous people that . . . there are a few suspicious people coming and visiting,’’ the official said.

A compound like bin Laden’s, where Pakistani security officials say about 18 people were living, would attract notice because it requires “huge provisions. You need to provide them with groceries,’’ the police official said.

Sardar Sher Dil, the former nazim, or mayor, of another neighborhood in the garrison town, said he kept a detailed map of his locality and regularly updated records on the residents of each house.

“I as a civilian local level politician can maintain all the map and data of my locality and voters. Why not the [military] officials and security agencies?’’ Dil said. “Everyone here in relevant quarters, like our main intelligence agencies, were fully aware of the Osama bin Laden compound.’’

Baba Haider Zaman, the mayor of Abbottabad district from 2005 to 2010, echoed doubts about security officials’ ignorance. “Either they took bribes or harbored such a high-value target,’’ said Zaman.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.