Raymond Davis Case Tests U.S.-Pakistan Intelligence Ties

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By TIME contributor Mark Benjamin

The first details of a possible deal to spring Raymond Davis from Pakistan surfaced late last week, providing a potential boost for the CIA in what has become a public relations disaster for the agency that at times has seemed like it just couldn’t get much worse. Davis is the agency operative accused of shooting to death two Pakistanis in broad daylight on a street in the center of Lahore last month.

If the deal comes together, the Pakistanis would hand over Davis to the United States. The U.S. government would, in turn, announce an investigation into the incident and financially compensate families of the victims, according to a report in Foreign Policy. (The widow of one of the deceased in the Davis saga would not receive compensation, since she reportedly committed suicide by swallowing rat poison after her husband’s death.)

This sort of transaction would avert a murder trial, an obvious catastrophe for the CIA, and would save the Pakistanis the humiliation of releasing Davis outright despite the deaths of Pakistanis on the streets of Lahore.

The details emerged following a meeting in Oman last week between top Pakistani military officers and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. David Petraeus, who is the top American commander in Afghanistan, and a laundry list of other American military officials.

Whether or not the deal to release Davis comes together, close observers of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan say the Davis incident has severely – and perhaps irrevocably – wounded rapport between the two countries.

“The damage is done no matter what the outcome is,” Moeed Yusuf, the South Asia Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, told TIME from Djibouti. “I think this is much more serious than what people are making it out to be,” he added. “This will not rupture the relationship, but relations are going to be much more tense because there is no trust.”

The rift is particularly acute between the CIA and the agency’s Pakistani counterpart, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The cost to American interests are potentially very high because the CIA heavily relies on the ISI in the U.S. anti-terrorism mission in the region. Pakistan also has the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal.

The ISI is angry, and their operatives went so far as to leak to The Associated Press last Wednesday a statement that the agency’s actions had “put the partnership into question.”

“It’s hard to predict if the relationship will ever reach the level at which it was prior to the Davis episode,” the ISI railed.

At least on the record, the CIA has been much more urbane in its statements about the ISI. “The CIA works closely with our Pakistani counterparts on a wide range of security challenges, including our common fight against al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies,” the agency’s George Little wrote in a statement sent to TIME. “The agency’s ties to ISI have been strong over the years, and when there are issues to sort out, we work through them. That’s the sign of a healthy partnership.”

The considerably harsher tone from the ISI is understandable, since the American side of the Davis story has been spectacularly bungled from the start. Most accounts suggest that the shooting on the street was a horrendously botched affair from the outset. Information leaked from the Pakistanis alleges that Davis shot the two victims in the back, engaging them with a Glock pistol and shooting through his windshield. Both of Davis’ victims were reportedly armed. Davis then got out of his car, fired more shots, and apparently photographed the body of at least one of the men.

Davis then called the U.S. Consulate in Lahore for an extraction, but the unmarked Toyota Land Cruiser that sped to the scene to retrieve him raced the wrong way down a one-way street, striking and killing another Pakistani on a motorcycle. A Lahore Police Department crime report says that while the SUV retreated to the consulate, 100 bullets and a black mask fell out of the vehicle. The Americans in the SUV were quickly whisked out of the country before Pakistani officials could question them.

The whole story took on a cartoon-like quality when Obama administration officials publicly insisted that Davis was a diplomat days after reports showed that the 36-year-old retired Special Forces soldier was traveling in Lahore with a Glock, a miniature telescope, a long-range wireless set and a headlamp. Those officials gave up that charade last Tuesday and admitted Davis worked for the CIA. Pakistani officials suspect he is part of a large American clandestine network in their country.

The relationship between the ISI and the CIA was already tense. American officials suspect the ISI may have played a role in publicly revealing the identity of the agency’s top clandestine officer in the country in December, forcing his removal him from Pakistan. The Davis debacle has done further damage; the only question is how much. Yusuf, from the Institute of Peace, says a dysfunctional relationship just got much worse, noting that, “Neither side has learned how to handle public relations with the other.”