pies from around the world operate under diplomatic cover. The Guardian’s confirmation and the Obama administration’s admission that Raymond Davis is a CIA operative is, then, not very surprising. But what compounds an already combustible issue is the disclosure that while a number of US media outlets knew about Davis’s CIA role, they kept it under wraps on the request of the Obama administration.
The US media’s complicity in its government’s ‘double-game’, and the alleged connection between the Davis case and a 23-day gap in predator strikes in Pakistan, are today the focus of widespread speculation and headline news.
The most shocking, and what some have called shameless, revelation has come from the New York Times. After admitting that Davis was “part of a covert, C.I.A.-led team of operatives conducting surveillance on militant groups” in Pakistan and that he had “worked for years as a C.I.A. contractor, including time at Blackwater Worldwide,” the Times story goes on to say the paper
“had agreed to temporarily withhold information about Mr. Davis’s ties to the agency at the request of the Obama administration.”
This request to withhold publication was lifted only after foreign papers reported the story. As Glen Greenwald, a US lawyer and columnist for Salon.com, notes, the Times came clean only
the story had “already been reported by other newspapers which don’t take orders from the US government.”
“It’s one thing for a newspaper to withhold information because they believe its disclosure would endanger lives,” says Greenwald. “But here, the US Government has spent weeks making public statements that were misleading in the extreme.”
Obama’s description of Davis as ‘our diplomat in Pakistan’ is a case in point, and the New York Times’ reporting of this, without correction, has particularly angered observers: “This is worse than hiding information; it’s actually allowing the President to lie.”
“The NYT deliberately concealed facts…because government officials told them to do so. That’s called being an active enabler of government propaganda,” says Greenwald.
Others, however, reject these claims and instead point to the US media’s compliance as a manifestation of something positive: a reservoir of trust in the government.
“The US government has no ‘control’ over the New York Times but they do have enough goodwill such that when they ‘request’ something and provide a good enough explanation, the Times is likely to cooperate. For a while, anyway,” Dr. Howard Schweber, a columnist for The Huffington Post and a professor of political science, told TFT.
What is worse, the revelation that the American media collectively withheld key information in the Davis story has led to accusations the media actually colluded in suppressing the story in the US.
Since January 27 when Davis shot and killed two Pakistanis in broad daylight in Lahore, the story has been front-page news – here in Pakistan. In the US, tracking reports in the media show the story was downplayed, if covered at all, at least in the first few weeks after it surfaced.
Is this because of bias, or because, as many claim, the US media actively colluded to suppress the story?
Some say it’s simply because the US media is particularly insular: “First the Middle East, and then the unions’ protests in Wisconsin, drowned out pretty much everything else,” argues Dr. Schweber. “As a matter of fact, even the Middle East is not getting as much attention in the US press since February 14th when our domestic politics started to get exciting. The American media is just like that. That’s all.”
Others claim the lack of coverage may be because the US media is beginning to suffer from Pakistan fatigue, or more properly, ‘Af-Pak fatigue.’
“Following the US media in the last one month shows the war in Afghanistan has remained second-page stuff; stories about Pakistan third-page – even something with as much novelistic colour as the Davis affair,” a media expert told TFT.
“This story may be a big issue in certain circles in Washington, and important to the CIA, but not to ordinary Americans; it’s really off their radar,” Bill Roggio, Managing Editor of The Long War Journal, told TFT.
And this is why many believe that whoever advised President Obama to go public with the demand for the release of ‘our diplomat in Pakistan’ made a serious mistake.
“This issue should have been dealt with by the bureaucracies and agencies of the two countries,” Dr. Stephen P. Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, told TFT.
“Especially in light of the fact that the ordinary American really doesn’t care about this issue, the fact that the US has taken a president-level stand on it just makes no sense,” says Roggio.
So what can the US do in terms of damage-control?
“The US needs to step back and try to reengage Pakistan through quiet diplomacy. Basically, get this [Davis] issue back under the table,” Roggio suggests. “At this point, the less the US says about this issue publicly, the better.”
The US has already revived high-level engagement with Pakistan after keeping it suspended for almost a fortnight. Observers have interpreted the resumption of contacts as an attempt by the US to boost the prospects of a blood money settlement or some other ‘out of the box’ solution.
But analysts also claim the moment to dial down the ‘crisis’ has passed. “The US has lost the opportunity to tame things. Almost certainly, it has,” Roggio concluded. “The only resolution acceptable to the US is that Davis be returned and that would be unacceptable to the Pakistani people.”
Pakistani analysts and officials, however, argue that the US is not about to back off. This is apparent from the fact that after holding off drone strikes for almost a month, due to what many claimed was tension between Pakistan and the US over the arrest of Davis, the strikes were resumed on February 20.
A senior government official ‘confirmed’ to TFT, on the condition of anonymity, that the gap in, and resumption of, drone strikes were both part of a well-planned US strategy, executed partly with the complicity of the Pakistan government.
“Yes, Pakistan did convey to the US that it stop the drone attacks and not make the situation worse,” the official told TFT. “The resumption of strikes is also a planned move and has very important symbolic value. This is the American way of saying:
we aren’t spineless; no matter what the diplomatic tensions, our counterterrorism work will continue
The CIA, which runs the drone programme in Pakistan, could also be firing a shot across the bows of the Pakistani establishment by resuming the drone strikes.
“It seems there are two possibilities,” says Dr. Schweber. “One, somebody, presumably the CIA, is sending somebody else, the Pak government/ISI, a message; two, military authorities obtained what they thought was reliable intelligence on a target too good to pass up even at the cost of prejudicing the case.”
Do the resumed strikes – which synchronised with news that Davis was indeed a CIA operative – constitute a message, from the American military and intelligence leaders to their Pakistani counterparts, that they’re not about to cut and run just because of embarrassment over the Davis case?
There are other possibilities also.
Just this week, the US revoked its post-9/11 policy of no-direct talks with the Taliban as the Obama administration entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders. Could that be a key element in the timing of the strikes? A message to the Taliban, sent by US authorities, that while the State Department may be talking peace, the Americans still wield a big stick?
Also, given that drone strikes can’t be carried out without Pakistani assistance and permission, could the latest strikes be part of a message to the State Department, and perhaps to civilian authoritative in Pakistan, that the militaries and intelligence services are the ones who decide when the drones strike and when they don’t?
There are also those who insist there is nothing unusual about the gap in drone strikes or the resumption of attacks after a long lull. According to data on the strikes compiled by The Long War Journal, the current 23-day lull in strikes in Pakistan is the third-longest period of inactivity since the US ramped up the programme in August 2008. The two most extended periods of operational inactivity so far occurred in 2009. The longest recorded pause was 33 days, from Nov. 4 to Dec. 8, 2009. The second-longest pause was 28 days, from May 16 to June 14, 2009.
“US officials related to the programme would not link the pause in strikes to the Davis case,” Roggio told TFT. “Sure, now that strikes have resumed, one can expect more conspiracy theories to confound an already confusing case. People are already saying that once the link between the drones and Davis become clear, the CIA just had to do something to dispel the stories. I only wish the US government and intelligence officials were that clever and proactive.”
Indeed, senior analysts in the US and Pakistan both warn against falling prey to such conspiracy theories: “In a case this murky, it is best to stay away from second and third guessing,” says Dr. Cohen.
perhaps is the lesson of the Davis case: that conspiracy theories and rumours are created to fill real gaps in knowledge and information. “But sadly,” says Roggio, “that is the reality of this business.
Mehreen Zahra-Malik may be reached at