The Pentagon is downplaying remarks Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made Sunday on 60 Minutes that Pakistani officials knew about the location of Osama bin Laden's hideout prior to the U.S. raid in Abbottabad in May. "I personally have always felt that somebody must have had some sense of what was happening at this compound." Panetta said.
Pentagon press secretary George Little emphasized that the CBS interview took place "several months ago" and that Panetta's working hard to improve U.S.-Pakistani relations. "The secretary indicated in the same interview that he has seen no evidence that Bin Laden was supported by the Pakistani government or that senior Pakistani officials knew he was hiding in the Abbotabad compound," Little said in a statement via the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. The clarifying remarks come at a low point for U.S.-Pakistani relations, reports Dawn, Pakistan's biggest English-language newspaper.
The newspaper reports that diplomats see Panetta's interview "against the backdrop of the ongoing tensions between the United States and Pakistan" as the two sides attempt to reignite talks. "They believe that both countries are entering a decisive phase for redefining their relations after months of tensions, which started with the May 2 US raid on Bin Laden’s compound and reached unprecedented heights with the November 26 Nato strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in Mohmand."
A major sticking point between the two nations is the prosecution of Shakil Afridi, a Pakistan doctor who ran a phony vaccination program in Abbottabad for the CIA in an effort to take DNA samples of bin Laden's family to confirm their location. Panetta's interview was the first time a senior American official acknowledged Afridi's role in the bin Laden mission and the defense secretary emphasized his importance. “I am very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual (Afridi)," Panetta said. "This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regard to this operation."
Afridi's fate will likely be a focal point of impending U.S.-Pakistani negotiations. According to CNN, Pakistan has not yet determined whether it will try him for high treason. "At this stage, the decision hasn't been taken to try the doctor." Adding to suspicions that Pakistan may be willing to let Afridi go, a diplomatic observer speaking with Dawn says the doctor may be part of a deal.“Dr. Afridi’s release may be part of the demands the United States would like to be met before a new relationship is finalised or he may be a bargaining chip for something bigger. We do not know yet.” See the entire Panetta interview below: