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Are CIA agents also immune?

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, February 25, 2011

The cat is finally fully out of the bag. Raymond Davis, 36, U.S. officials in Washington have confirmed, is a contractor with CIA and was part of a secret agency team operating out of a safe house in Lahore. Will now the US and Pakistani governments be able to invoke the diplomatic immunity for him? It also raises the fundamental question as to whether agents of CIA or of similar foreign outfits really enjoy immunity? 

President Obama, Hilary Clinton and other senior administration officials repeatedly described Davis as a diplomat who was assigned to the U.S. Consulate General in Lahore and claimed he was entitled to immunity from prosecution in Pakistan. 

But, in fact, Davis has spent much of the past two years working as part of a group of covert CIA operatives, whose mission appears to have centered on conducting surveillance of militant groups in large cities, including Lahore. At the time of his arrest, Davis was based at a house with five other CIA contractors as well as an agency employee, a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, reported Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, on Feb 21. 

With this, the leading US media finally made the real status of Davis public. Until now, the leading papers had agreed, on the request of US intelligence and security officials, not to reveal the real identity of Davis “for fear of his safety.” 

“The Washington Post learned of Davis's CIA affiliation after his arrest but agreed not to publish the information at the request of senior U.S. intelligence officials, who cited concern for Davis's safety if his true employment status were disclosed. Those officials withdrew the request Monday after other news organizations identified Davis as a CIA employee and after U.S. officials made a final attempt to prevail upon Pakistan's government to release Davis or move him to a safer facility,” the Post wrote while explaining its silence over the issue since the arrest of Davis late January. 

While these disclosures should come across as embarrassing for Obama and team, who attempted to go out of way to secure the agent’s release under the ruse of diplomatic immunity, it also exposes the duality of the major US newspapers – their propensity to act in cahoots with the security establishment when it comes to the US interests. It matters little, so it seems, at what cost do they all secure the US national interests. They seem oblivious to the interests of countries where these agents operate – regardless whether they kill people or infringe upon local sovereignty or trample laws. 

The revelations in the American papers that Raymond Davis had been in contact with 27 militants of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan terrorists ( according to The New York Times, Washington Post, Feb 21), are quite startling, and, if in the coming days, he manages to get off the hook under the clause of diplomatic immunity, the government will face imminent storm and upheaval, kicked up by all non-PPP forces. (Most Pakistanis already smell a rat and Interior minister Rehman Malik has added to suspicions by claiming on Feb 21 outside the Parliament House that Davis “possesses diplomatic passport,” prompting fears both governments may now come up with forged papers to prove he is a diplomat). 

This will also strain the already volatile complex matrix of relations i.e. the state of government-military and the Pakistan-US relations. 

Officials who spoke with the Washington Post and other papers also conceded that the impact of the disclosure that Davis is a CIA contractor "will be serious.” 

"I think it's going to make it a hell of a lot harder to get him out," an official told the Post. "I think ISI knows what this guy is, but I think this is just going to inflame the Pakistanis," the paper quoted the official as saying. 

In this context, any free passage to Davis– that most Pakistanis might view as disgraceful -- will not only further strain the PPP-Military relations, but also accentuate the existing tensions with Washington. Former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s “fall from grace” following his refusal to sign Davis into “diplomatic immunity and consequent freedom” (Thomas Houlahan, The News, Feb 22nd) also underscores the strained relations between the Zardari-led government and the military. 

Zardari and his ministers appeared desperate to let Davis walk away with two murders, but Qureshi refused. Zardari then punished Qureshi by throwing him out of the cabinet. And with this we get to another critical point: can a government dying to accommodate American pressure survive for too long? The US pressure in the case of Raymond Davis clearly runs contrary to all legal and diplomatic norms (read Washington Post and New York Times). It necessitated a subtle and dispassionate response, rather than intimidation out of Washington, and an out-of-way compliance by those ruling Islamabad. 

Qureshi and his secretary Salman Bashir as well as the military establishment stood their ground and refused to buckle under “financial blackmail”- as was being sounded out by many Americans and their Pakistani cohorts. It also blunted the argument – as peddled by many – that either talk of principles or ask for US money. These advocates forgot that asking for money doesn’t necessarily mean shelving principles and morality altogether. The government simply ignored this fundamental reality and has thus allowed all the forces to stand up to it. It will be pretty uphill to survive for the full term, if not impossible.

Given the explosive situation, one wonders whether the government will now ask the US government to drop insistence on Davis’s diplomatic immunity altogether to allow his trial and settlement of the case in Pakistan? If the US had been asking other governments to waive diplomatic immunity for foreign diplomats in the USA for trial, why can’t Pakistan ask for it?

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk