July 30, 2011 — -- The CIA station chief who oversaw the intelligence team that found Osama bin Laden has left Pakistan for medical reasons and is not returning, the second time the agency's most senior officer in Pakistan has left in the last seven months, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.
The Islamabad station chief -- one of the agency's most-important positions in the world -- arrived only late last year after his predecessor was essentially run out of town when a Pakistani official admitted his name had been leaked. The departure of two station chiefs in such a short amount of time threatens to upset a vital intelligence office. U.S. officials, however, insisted that the quick turnover would not harm U.S. intelligence efforts in Pakistan.
In fact, both US and Pakistani officials hope the station chief's exit will lead to improved relations between Pakistan's intelligence agency, known as the ISI, and the CIA.
That is because, according to three US and Pakistani officials, the departing chief of station had an "extremely tense" relationship with his ISI counterparts including Director General Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha. One US official said the CIA chief was due to depart in a few months as a result of his poor relations with the Pakistanis.
The CIA-ISI relationship has been strained to the breaking point since Pakistani intelligence officials discovered the CIA secretly recruited Pakistani agents to help find Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a military town that is a 90-minute drive from Islamabad. The two intelligence agencies have been official allies since 9/11, but the ISI has punished the CIA for the unilateral raid. Since then, the Pakistani military has kicked out all but a handful of Special Operations Forces working near the border with Afghanistan; dozens of CIA officials left the country out of fear of retribution or exposure; and U.S. officials have been regularly stopped by police in northwest Pakistan asking for paperwork that allows them to travel, something they say was unnecessary last year.
In one case, U.S. officials were stopped at a toll booth, and a group of Pakistani journalists were waiting for them to arrive. In another case, CIA officials were stopped at a checkpoint in Peshawar and held long enough for the media to show up and take their pictures.
"Pakistan has been harassing U.S. personnel working in the country for months," complained a U.S. official.
Pakistan even threatened to impose more formal restrictions on the travel of all U.S. diplomats and require prior notification, but dropped the demand when the U.S. threatened similar restrictions for its diplomats inside the United States, according to one U.S. official.
The tension seems to stem from the ISI's belief the CIA is still running a clandestine network of American and Pakistani intelligence agents without sharing enough information about their identities or their assignments with the ISI.
The CIA has pledged to provide that information, but Pakistani intelligence officials don't seem to believe their assurances.
As one Pakistani intelligence official put it, "There is no trust."
The feeling is often mutual, which is why the CIA did not tell the ISI it had been tracking bin Laden in Abbottabad since last fall out of fear its cover would be blown. The recently departed station chief helped create that lack of trust by overseeing the intelligence gathering that led to Osama bin Laden's death, which included a network of undeclared Pakistani agents. Pakistani officials rounded up at least five Pakistanis accused of helping the CIA launch the Abbottabad raid, although only one remains in custody.
In Pakistan, the CIA station chief was reviled for his role in the raid, but in Washington, according to one official, he was widely praised. He "had the agency's full confidence," one U.S. official said.
The tension with the ISI began shortly after the recently departed station chief arrived. He helped try to release Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who shot dead two men who Pakistani officials admit were working for the ISI. Davis told U.S. officials and Pakistani police that he shot the men believing he was being robbed by armed Pakistanis.
But the tension seems to also have been a product of a personality clash. A senior U.S. official who used to serve in Islamabad criticized the just departed station chief for not working hard enough to develop personal relationships with his Pakistani counterparts. Their relationship, the senior official said, was much worse than the relationship with the previous station chief as well the relationship cultivated by Vice Adm. Michael LeFever, who only recently departed as the top U.S. military officer in Pakistan.
U.S. officials declined to provide details about the station chief's illness.
The CIA declined to comment for this story.
Bad Marriage vs. Divorce
Recently, there have been some small signs of a thaw between the two agencies. The ISI granted 87 visas for CIA officers, bringing the CIA back to full strength in Pakistan, according to a Pakistani official. The official also said the U.S. and Pakistan agreed on a handful of "major" issues during a recent meeting between ISI Director Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha and acting CIA director Michael Morell, although the official would not provide details.
"The freefall has been arrested," said one Pakistani official close to the military.
But a U.S. official complained those visas were not good enough, since they were single entry and only valid for a few months. A separate, senior U.S. official said some of the visas were issued to officers who are no longer working in Pakistan.
The two agencies are far from recovering even the tense relationship they had late last year, when the previous station chief was outed, according to two Pakistani officials, in response to a court case filed in Brooklyn naming Pasha as a defendant.
But both sides say they are trying to work through the current tension.
"A bad marriage," a U.S. official said, "is better than a divorce."