Relations Strained Between CIA, Pakistan's ISI

Lawyers for the CIA contractor being held in a Pakistani prison are preparing to defend him against possible murder charges. Raymond Davis was arrested in Pakistan after shooting two Pakistani men in Lahore earlier this year. U.S. officials say Davis has diplomatic immunity and should be released. But some in Pakistan say Davis is an example of how U.S. intelligence agents in Pakistan operate with impunity.

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There was a hearing today in the case of the CIA contractor who's being held in a Pakistani prison. Raymond Davis was arrested for shooting two men on a street in Lahore earlier this year. The U.S. government says Davis was defending himself in an armed robbery.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports that the case has made relations between the countries' intelligence agencies even more complicated. It has both sides asking the same question.

RACHEL MARTIN: And it's a pretty uncomfortable question to ask about a country that's supposed to be a close ally. But it's there, just under the surface, coloring how each side perceives the other.

D: Is the United States a partner - albeit a problematic one - or is it actually an enemy? And the same question is being asked, increasingly, of Pakistan. Is it a partner that's troublesome or is it, fundamentally, an enemy?

MARTIN: That's Christine Fair, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University. She tracks the relationship between the CIA and the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service. Fair says the Raymond Davis controversy is just the latest in a string of high-profile punches the agencies have been throwing at one another.

First, there was a civil lawsuit filed last year in New York. It links Pakistan's spy agency to terrorist attacks in India in 2008. The ISI, not pleased by this, apparently struck back. U.S. officials say the ISI intentionally leaked the identity of the CIA station chief in Pakistan earlier this year. The CIA officer then had to flee the country.

Here's Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid.

MARTIN: Once you have the CIA chief in Islamabad - or the station chief in Islamabad name known to the public, he can't really function. So there's been a lot of this cumulative cat-and-mouse game between the ISI and the CIA.

MARTIN: The Raymond Davis case is the latest move in that game. Davis was in Pakistan, working for the CIA as a contractor. According to press accounts, he was part of a CIA operation tracking militant groups based in Pakistan. A senior U.S. official denies that. But the big issue is that Davis may have been working behind the ISI's back.

Robert Grenier used to be the top CIA officer in Pakistan.

MARTIN: I think the ISI is feeling embarrassed because this sort of underscores that the ISI, you know, doesn't have control over what foreign intelligence is doing in its country - or at least, it appears that way. And I think that they're very sensitive to that.

MARTIN: So Grenier says that may mean Pakistan's intelligence service will demand to know more about U.S. operations inside Pakistan.

MARTIN: In the past, the Pakistanis have shown a singular lack of curiosity about how the U.S. was acquiring information on which they would then ask the Pakistanis to act. And that aspect of the relationship may be starting to change.

MARTIN: Christine Fair, of Georgetown, agrees and thinks Pakistan may be using the Davis case to gain the upper hand.

D: But even if this doesn't completely break the relationship, it will, at the very best, create another space for leverage where the ISI can reassert itself and try to re-establish some ground rules for the relationship.

MARTIN: Fair says she could see ISI officials asking for more control over which U.S. government employees are issued visas to Pakistan, and a bigger say in the size of the U.S. footprint in the country. Much of that footprint is devoted to tracking down militant groups operating inside Pakistan. There are three big ones: Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban.

Christine Fair says the CIA and the ISI have totally different views on these groups. The CIA sees them as existential threats to America.

MARTIN: In contrast, the ISI sees these groups as existential assets, and so this is where our two countries are at absolute loggerheads. There's really no way of finessing this fundamental difference.

MARTIN: One former U.S. intelligence official described the situation this way: The CIA and the ISI work together in a space where their interests intersect. That common space, he said, is getting smaller.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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