July 7, 2011 — -- U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen said today the Pakistani government "sanctioned" the killing of a critical Pakistani investigative journalist, becoming the first high-ranking official to make the public allegation.
The tortured body of Syed Saleem Shahzad was discovered in late May, days after he published an exclusive report which suggested al Qaeda had infiltrated the Pakistani navy. Months before, Shahzad had told colleagues and a Human Rights Watch researcher that he felt personally threatened by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.
Though a spokesperson for the ISI made a rare public comment to The Associated Press to claim any link between the ISI and Shahzad's death was "absurd," The New York Times reported earlier this week the Obama administration had seen intelligence that directly linked the agency to the hit.
Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters today, "I have not seen anything to disabuse that the government knew about it. [But] I cannot, I would not be able to walk in and say, here's the string of evidence I have to confirm it."
Mullen said he could not confirm the ISI in particular had anything to do with the killing, but he was "hugely concerned" about the death.
At the time of Shahzad's death, Pakistan's Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, visited his home to offer condolences and told reporters there it was possible the journalist was killed over a personal matter.
But in October 2010, Shahzad told his editor at the Asia Times Online he had been summoned to the ISI offices after publishing another exclusive report about Pakistan's release of a major Taliban figure. During the meeting, the ISI demanded Shahzad retract the story and reveal his sources, but Shahzad refused, prompting a veiled threat, according to a report by Asia Times Online.
Shahzad described the ISI meeting in an email to Human Rights Watch researcher Ali Dayan Hasan and said, "I am forwarding this email to you in case something happens to me or my family in the future."
Asia Times Online reported Shahzad sent a similar email to his editor there. When the editor suggested Shahzad lay low a while following the ISI meeting, he reportedly responded, "If I hold back and don't do my job, I might as well just make the tea."
An unnamed ISI official told Pakistan's state news agency that the meeting with Shahzad was cordial and no such threats were ever made.
"It is regrettable that some sections of the media have taken upon themselves to use the incident for targeting and maligning the ISI," the report said, paraphrasing the official. "Baseless accusations against the country's sensitive agencies for their alleged involvement in Shahzad's murder are totally unfounded."
Shahzad's colleagues at Asia Times Online and his own biography posted there reveal a history of run-ins with the feared intelligence agency.
"More recently, I am known for writing bold stories about sensitive institutions like the apex court and the armed forces," Shahzad wrote in the biography when he was in his early 30s. "Exposing the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency in Pakistani politics landed me in trouble, but intervention at a very high level by leaders of the national press forced the state apparatus to take a step back."