ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — There were signs Wednesday that Pakistan might free a doctor it had jailed for helping the CIA track Osama bin Laden as Pakistan's spy chief flew to Washington to try to rescue the badly strained intelligence ties between the countries.
Talks between senior CIA officials and Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, would include the fate of the jailed doctor, Shakil Afridi, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Pakistan seemed to have softened its position on Afridi, who's already been the subject of weeks of tense, high-level negotiations between Washington and Islamabad. A senior Pakistani official said Afridi might not have known that he was working for the CIA and could have been recruited by Pakistani intermediaries, in which case Pakistan might not have grounds to detain him.
"If it is confirmed that he did not deal with Americans and didn't know he was working for the CIA, he didn't break any laws," the Pakistani official said. "He also did not spy on Pakistan or violate the official secrets act. So there may be no reason to charge him; that is, he was misled and did not know he was working indirectly for a foreign intelligence service."
McClatchy revealed this week that the CIA had recruited Afridi to obtain DNA samples from the house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where U.S. officials suspected that bin Laden was living. Afridi set up a fake vaccination program as a pretext for sending a nurse to the bin Laden compound to extract blood from a family member to determine whether the al Qaida chief was living there.
While it's unclear whether the DNA was obtained, the operation preceded the May 2 U.S. raid on the house that found and killed bin Laden.
American officials fear for the safety of Afridi, who's been in ISI custody since late May. Some officials speculate that he may have been tortured.
The discovery of bin Laden in Pakistan and the unilateral U.S. raid plunged relations between Islamabad and Washington to their worst point in years, and officials said that Pasha's visit was to discuss intelligence ties in general, not specifically the issue of the doctor.
But Afridi has become a pawn in the American-Pakistani falling out, and officials said the CIA would use the opportunity to press for his release.
Intelligence sharing between Islamabad and Washington reportedly has almost ceased since the bin Laden operation, but Pasha's trip was one signal that relations were thawing. Separately, U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. James Mattis met in Pakistan with the country's top military officer, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to "review the way ahead," according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy.
The ISI was furious that the CIA secretly recruited Pakistani citizens to spy on bin Laden's house in the northern garrison town of Abbottabad; the American raid itself humiliated the Pakistani military. For its part, Washington has demanded an explanation of how bin Laden was able to live undisturbed in Abbottabad for five years, fueling suspicions that elements within the ISI or Pakistani military had harbored him.
Pakistan arrested Afridi for working for a foreign intelligence agency, a serious crime that can carry the death penalty, but U.S. officials think he did nothing wrong in helping to track a terrorist who was a threat to both countries. The officials have been asking Pakistan to free Afridi and allow his family and him to leave for the United States.
The doctor, who's in his late 40s, has given Pakistan a bargaining chip in talks about counter-terrorism operations. Washington wants the ISI to agree to joint intelligence operations against suspected militants in Pakistan, chiefly bin Laden's successor as al Qaida chief, Ayman al Zawahiri, who U.S. officials suspect is hiding in Pakistan's tribal area.
Washington also is pushing for more visas for CIA personnel to enter Pakistan and to continue missile strikes in the tribal area.
"Pasha will offer cooperation in certain areas but not all," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani analyst who's based in Lahore. "The ISI will be resistant to independent CIA operations in Pakistan."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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