A lone U.S. ambassador compromised America's hunt for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan for more than two years, The New York Sun has learned.
Ambassador Nancy Powell, America's representative in Pakistan, refused to allow the distribution in Pakistan of wanted posters, matchbooks, and other items advertising America's $25 million reward for information leading to the capture of Mr. bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders.
Instead, thousands of matchbooks, posters, and other material - printed at taxpayer expense and translated into Urdu, Pashto, and other local languages - remained "impounded" on American Embassy grounds from 2002 to 2004, according to Rep. Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois.
While the American government was engaged in a number of "black" or covert intelligence activities to locate Al Qaeda leaders, Mr. Kirk said, the "white" or public efforts - which have succeeded in the past in leading to the capture of wanted terrorists - were effectively shut down in the months following the September 11 attacks.
Mr. Kirk discovered Ms. Powell's unusual order in January 2004 and, over the past year, launched a series of behind-the-scenes moves that culminated in a blunt conversation with President Bush aboard Air Force One, the removal of the ambassador, and congressional approval for reinvigorating the hunt for Mr. bin Laden.
The full effect of Ms. Powell's impoundment order is difficult to measure. Pakistan is a key theater in the war on terror. Virtually every Al Qaeda leader captured to date has been apprehended in Pakistan, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the planner of the September 11 attacks. More than 600 Al Qaeda fighters have been killed or captured in Pakistan since 2001.
Mr. Kirk accidentally learned of Ms. Powell's impoundment policy as part of an official congressional delegation visiting Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, in January 2004.
During the course of his visit, Mr. Kirk met with several intelligence officers to discuss the hunt for Mr. bin Laden. Mr. Kirk, a moderate Republican from the North Shore of Chicago, also serves as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserves.
Citing his experience in intelligence matters, Mr. Kirk asked embassy intelligence officials about the distribution of matchbooks in local languages. A single matchbook helped lead to the capture of Mir Amal Kansi, who gunned down several CIA employees at the front gates of the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters in 1993. Kansi was arrested in Pakistan in 1995 when a local fingered him for the $5 million reward. Mr. Kirk pointed out the similarities between the Kansi and bin Laden cases. "Both are cases gone cold in Pakistan," he said.
Embassy intelligence officials agreed with his assessment, Mr. Kirk said, but surprised the lawmaker by saying that the ambassador had ended the distribution of printed materials advertising the $25 million price on Mr. bin Laden's head.
Security personal were unhappy with the decision, according to the congressman. "There was a lot of discord among the staff," he said.
Mr. Kirk said that he raised the issue directly with the ambassador. According to the congressman, she replied that she had "six top priorities" and finding Mr. bin Laden was only one of them. She listed other priorities: securing supply lines for American and allied forces in Afghanistan, shutting down the network of nuclear proliferator A.Q. Khan, preventing a nuclear war between Pakistan and India, and forestalling a radical Islamic takeover of the government of Pakistan, a key American ally.
Ms. Powell, now serving at the State Department's Foggy Bottom headquarters in Washington D.C., declined to comment directly.
A senior State Department official confirmed that the meeting between Mr. Kirk and Ms. Powell did occur and that the ambassador did review the embassy's top six priorities, but the official said that "counterterrorism was the no. 1 priority."
The senior State Department official denied that Ms. Powell had restricted the distribution of materials touting the reward for Mr. bin Laden and other "high value targets." That program - known as Rewards for Justice - was discontinued in Pakistan prior to Ms. Powell's 2002 arrival because it was "ineffective," the senior official said. At the time, the Rewards for Justice program was widely used by other American embassies farther from the center of America's operations to kill or capture key Al Qaeda leaders.
A career State Department functionary, Ms. Powell was sworn in as American ambassador to Pakistan on August 9, 2002. A fluent Urdu speaker, she had previously served in posts on the subcontinent and across sub-Saharan Africa. She joined the State Department in 1977, following a six-year stint teaching high-school social studies in Dayton, Iowa.
Returning to Washington, D.C., Mr. Kirk began working to overturn Ms. Powell's order. As member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the State Department, he was a force with which to be reckoned. He worked methodically, far from the public eye. He met with key congressional chairmen and then, gathering support, met with the speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert. In February 2004, he met with then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Then, he began raising the issue with a growing array of White House officials.
When Mr. Bush asked the congressman to join him aboard Air Force One for a campaign stop in Mr. Kirk's suburban Chicago district in July 2004, the lawmaker saw his chance. He told the president about his ambassador impounding materials that could lead to the capture of Mr. bin Laden. "Bush was very cautious," Mr. Kirk recalled. The president did not betray an immediate response. "When one of his people is concerned, he likes to take his time and investigate."
Ms. Powell left her post as American ambassador in November 2004.
State Department spokesman Noel Clay declined to comment on the timing of ambassadorial rotations.
A senior State Department official disputed the notion that Ms. Powell was removed by the White House, adding, "if the president really wants an ambassador gone, the department can move a lot faster than three months."
The former schoolteacher was replaced by veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker in November 2004. The mood at the American Embassy lifted almost immediately. "He is a take-charge guy," said one official who knows the embassy's intelligence staff, "far more aggressive in pursuing the bin Laden account."
The American Embassy in Islamabad now boasts a 24-hour call center to receive tips. The center is manned by two locals, both of whom speak the three major languages of Pakistan, and supervised by a Diplomatic Security officer. Embassy staff recently launched a 12-week radio and television campaign alerting residents that, in the words of one 30-second Urdu-language radio spot, they "may be eligible for a reward of up to $25 million for information leading to the arrest of known international terrorists." About 25 calls were received in February 2005, the center's first full month of operation.
Congress recently passed legislation raising the reward for information on Mr. bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members to $50 million and revamping the Rewards for Justice Program. More than $57 million has been paid to 43 people who provided credible information about the whereabouts of known terrorists since the program's founding in 1984. But little has been paid since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Under legislation co-sponsored by Mr. Kirk and signed by Mr. Bush in December 2004, the top reward for information leading to the capture of Mr. bin Laden has been raised to $50 million from $25 million. The Rewards for Justice program has also been extensively retuned. Embassies are now required to conduct focus groups of locals to discover precisely which radio stations they tune in to and which newspapers they read. Based on those reports, the American Embassy in Pakistan is now broadcasting advertisements on the radio programs most closely followed by the residents of Waziristan, a mountainous region of Pakistan that is believed to be a haven for Al Qaeda.
The American Embassy in Islamabad's Rewards for Justice program is now in high gear. Yet, if Mr. Kirk and some intelligence officials are correct, valuable time was lost.