ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's main spy agency denied it had unmasked the CIA's station chief in Islamabad, and warned such allegations could damage its already fragile counterterrorism alliance with the United States.
The CIA pulled its top spy out of Pakistan on Thursday amid death threats after his name emerged publicly a few weeks ago from a Pakistani man threatening to sue the CIA over the alleged deaths of his son and brother in a 2009 U.S. missile strike. The attorney involved with the complaint said he learned the name from Pakistani journalists.
But the station chief's outing has spurred questions whether Pakistan's spy service might have leaked the information. Lawsuits filed last month in New York City in connection with the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India, also may have raised tensions by naming Pakistan's intelligence chief as a defendant.
The recall of the top American intelligence official in Pakistan comes at a delicate time.
The White House over the past week released the results of a review of progress in the war in neighboring Afghanistan. The report included the conclusion that the existence of safe havens for militants on Pakistan's side of the border remained a major obstacle to defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Pakistan's assistance in clearing those militant hideouts – and providing intelligence to help the U.S. pinpoint targets for its covert, drone-fired missile strikes – is considered crucial. A breakdown in the relationship with Pakistani intelligence could be a major blow to the U.S.
An official with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, its lead spy agency and a powerful force in the country, said Saturday any suggestions it outed the station chief were "a slur."
In particular, he denied the notion that the U.S. lawsuits had spurred the ISI to retaliate.
Such "unfounded stories can create differences between the two organizations," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not cleared to brief the media.
The U.S. lawsuits were filed last month, and the plaintiffs include relatives of victims in the Mumbai attacks, which left 166 people and nine attackers dead. The assault has been blamed on the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is listed as a defendant in the suit.
But they also list the ISI and its chief, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. The suits repeat long-standing allegations that the ISI "has long nurtured and used international terrorist groups," including Lashkar.
"Defendant ISI provided critical planning, material support, control and coordination of the attacks," the lawsuits allege in pursuing wrongful death and additional claims against the ISI, Pasha and others.
The lawsuits claim at one point that a safe house in Pakistan used in connection with the attacks was part of the ISI's "Karachi Project" – "an initiative by which anti-Indian groups were tasked and/or supported by the ISI in a surreptitious fashion to engage in acts of international terrorism."
Pakistan has denied any government agency was involved in the attacks in India, its archrival with whom it has fought three wars since 1947. Islamabad has detained seven suspects in the case, but their trials have stalled in the country's slow-moving court system. India has convicted the sole surviving gunman in the attack.
It's unclear how far the U.S. lawsuits will go or how quickly they will move, but being named in such legal documents is an embarrassment to the ISI and Pasha.
"We are in the process of serving all defendants," James Kreindler, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, wrote in an e-mail. "Most have been served, which triggers their obligation to answer."
The Pakistani intelligence official said the CIA has not directly accused the ISI of any wrongdoing in the revelation of the station chief's name.
The station chief in Islamabad operates as a virtual military commander in the U.S. war against al-Qaida and other militant groups hidden along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The chief runs the Predator drone program targeting terrorists and handles some of the CIA's most urgent and sensitive tips.
He also collaborates closely with Pakistani intelligence. The alliance has led to strikes on key militant leaders but has also been marred by spats between the two agencies and ongoing suspicion that the ISI has not fully severed its ties to the Afghan Taliban, which it supported before the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
During the first term of President George W. Bush's administration, Pakistan almost expelled a previous CIA station chief in a dispute about intelligence sharing.
Pakistanis involved in the threatened lawsuit over the missile strikes have held rallies in Islamabad featuring posters bearing the CIA officer's name and urging him to leave the country.
A number of Americans and other Westerners, including a Wall Street Journal correspondent, have had to leave Pakistan or take extra precautions after their names surfaced in press reports as possible spies for the CIA, Israel or India. Some right-wing newspapers have even printed Westerners' addresses or claimed they were Jewish in some articles.
Associated Press writer Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this report.