US secret agents 'used Kashmir earthquake as cover for al-Qaeda intelligence work'
The 2005 Kashmir earthquake was used as cover by the US to send secret agents into Pakistan tasked with tracking down al-Qaeda operatives and their Pakistani handlers, according to a new book that lifts the lid on the Pentagon's special operations.
By Rob Crilly, Islamabad
6:36PM GMT 15 Feb 2012
Authors Marc Ambinder and DB Grady claim that dozens of Americans arrived posing as aid and construction workers in the aftermath of a disaster that claimed more than 70,000 lives.
Some left only last year when US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden and relations between Washington and Islamabad reached a new low.
The latest revelations will anger Pakistani authorities at a time when they are considering lifting a ban on Nato supplies passing through their territory to Afghanistan.
And genuine aid agencies fear it will increase suspicion about their activities in a country still recovering from consecutive years of heavy floods.
The new book, The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army, claims to reveal the history of the Joint Special Operations Command and its counter-terrorism activities.
Mr Ambinder, a White House correspondent, and Mr Grady, a former special forces paratrooper, say the US smuggled agents into Pakistan in 2005.
"The US intelligence community took advantage of the chaos to spread resources of its own into the country.
"Using valid US passports and posing as construction and aid workers, dozens of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives and contractors flooded in without the requisite background checks from the country's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency," says the book.
As well as tracking down terrorist figures, they were also asked to gather intelligence on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and to penetrate the ISI.
"Under a secret program code-named Screen Hunter, JSOC, augmented by the Defense Intelligence Agency and contract personnel, was authorised to shadow and identify members of the ISI suspected of being sympathetic to al-Qaeda," it continued.
"It is not clear whether JSOC units used lethal force against these ISI officers " At the same time, special forces were crossing into Pakistan's tribal areas – normally off limits to US troops – from Afghanistan searching for al-Qaeda figures and militant groups. Some operations were conducted with the support of Pakistan, while others took place in secret, the authors claim.
It is not the first time details of secret operations with US boots on the ground have emerged. Documents released by WikiLeaks in 2010 revealed that Pakistan had twice asked for US soldiers to embed with its Frontier Corps in areas bordering Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the US embassy declined to comment on the new claims.
The CIA's secret role in Pakistan was exposed last year when a contractor, Raymond Davis, shot dead two men in Lahore. He was arrested and eventually returned to the US after a protracted diplomatic wrangle stirred anti-American hostility.
Anger deepened last May after a secret operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, barely 30 miles from Islamabad.
And in November, Islamabad halted Nato supply convoys after a cross-border air strike by US forces killed 24 Pakistani troops.
Tariq Azim, a senator who served as a minister in the government of Pervez Musharraf, said details of the secret operations would inflame anti-American sentiment once again.
"Plenty of people are now saying we told you so, the US is up to its old tricks," he said.
"Once again it brings up the debate about whether the US is really our ally." A senior security official said it was too early to comment on the book but said it would set back relations between the two countries.
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