US intelligence suggests coverup in Bhutto assassination

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The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27, 2007 has created concerns for US intelligence officials, who see US policy toward Pakistan as being held hostage by President Pervez Musharraf and factions of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Mrs. Bhutto was shot when she stood up through the sunroof of her vehicle after a campaign rally for her Pakistan Peoples Party in Rawalpindi. Immediately after the shooting, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive, killing 25 people as well as himself.

The Musharraf government’s initial reaction was to blame either al Qaeda or other terrorists closely linked to al Qaeda. However, contradictions in official statements, as well as the behavior of police – who hosed down the streets in Rawalpindi just an hour after Mrs. Bhutto was assassinated – quickly began to cast doubt on the official version of what happened, leaving serious questions surrounding Musharraf and the ISI and putting more pressure on the United States to pull back its support for Pakistani leadership.

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While President Musharraf initially declined help from the British in investigating the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto, pressure from a distrusting public and a crumbling explanation caused a turnaround this week. An agreement was reached allowing the British to conduct their own investigation, and police from Scotland Yard arrived over the weekend.

US intelligence officials say, however, that very little evidence will be found, especially if investigators are looking for the suspected shooter. Three former US intelligence officials have told Raw Story that not only is the gunman dead, he was likely the actual target of the suicide bomber.

According to a former high ranking US intelligence official, who wishes to remain anonymous due to the delicate nature of the information, the US intelligence community understands the gunman to have been killed in the blast following Mrs. Bhutto’s assassination.

“He was killed, probably not knowing that the suicide bomber was there,” said this source. “We don’t know for sure if the two men arrived together. We do know that the assassin died in the explosion, and was probably meant to.”

Several other US intelligence officials concur that the bomber was likely “inserted” to “clean up” evidence of the shooting, including eliminating the gunman.

When asked why it was important to determine the relationship between the gunman and the suicide bomber, one former CIA officer explained that such details are the key to understanding what happened, how it happened, and who was ultimately responsible. Such details also enable investigators to document patterns and methods used, in order to determine if a terrorist attack has indeed taken place or something else has occurred.

Not terrorism

On Thursday evening, just hours after Mrs. Bhutto was assassinated, the FBI and DHS issued a bulletin indicating that the attack had originated from the terrorist group al Qaeda and was carried out by a suicide bomber. That information, which the US acquired from Pakistani intelligence and government officials, came originally from an Italian news agency which claimed to have received a phone call from an al Qaeda representative and was never substantiated.

On Friday, the Pakistani Interior Ministry offered a slightly different version, saying the suicide bomber was associated with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a terrorist group linked to al Qaeda. This initial belief that an act of terrorism was responsible for the tragedy that killed Mrs. Bhutto and 25 of her supporters caused a great deal of confusion.

Intelligence sources say that it is precisely these kinds of unsubstantiated claims that create the impression that it is “all al Qaeda, all the time,” as one former official noted.

The reports that an al Qaeda suicide bomber had killed Mrs. Bhutto disappeared as quickly as they had surfaced, when footage showing a gunman and an audio capture which clearly indicated several shots fired prior to the explosion began to circulate online and in news accounts.

According to a former high ranking US intelligence official, the involvement of a gunman undercuts the official story that a terrorist attack was responsible for the murder of Mrs. Bhutto.

“Traditionally, al Qaeda coordinates multiple targets and suicide bombers,” said the source during a Wednesday conversation. “While it is possible that al Qaeda was behind the assassination, it is not likely, given the operational elements.”

A former CIA officer agreed that employing gunmen to assassinate targets is not the way al Qaeda generally operates, saying, “[shooting] at close range is not a traditional al Qaeda technique.”

Both sources agreed that it is the general belief within the US intelligence community that the gunman was killed in the attack.

A current US official, who wishes to not be identified for this article, confirmed that the gunman died in the blast but was unable to say whether the suicide bomber was targeting the gunman as suggested by the intelligence officials. “The working assumption is that the gunman [is] dead. But it’s by no means clear that the gunman was ignorant of the bomber. I can’t confirm that at all.”

The CIA declined to comment for this article

Other Pakistani candidate also a target

On the same day that Mrs. Bhutto was targeted, supporters of Nawaz Sharif – former prime minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party – were shot at as they readied a welcome procession to greet their candidate, who was also scheduled to give a speech in Rawalpindi. That shooting resulted in four dead and 16 injured, putting the total death count of Thursday’s violence at 30, including Mrs. Bhutto.

Mr. Sharif did not respond to requests for comment, but in statements to the foreign press he has blamed President Musharraf for both the attack on his supporters and the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto.

“The Pakistani people are disgusted and disappointed to see Bush support one man against 160 million of its citizens,” Sharif told the Hindustan Times. “I always worked well with the US when I was prime minister. But today I am disappointed.”

Contradictory claims, likely cover-up

While no officials interviewed for this article would explicitly say that Pakistani military or ISI officials played a role in the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto and the shooting attack on Sharif supporters, that possibility was not discounted. The evidence thus far does raise many questions about what role, if any, President Musharraf or someone in his administration might have played in the double attack at Rawalpindi.

“I won’t say Musharraf was responsible [for the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto] on the record,” said the former high ranking CIA official. “At the very least he was responsible for not providing adequate security.”

Originally a suicide bomber on a motorcycle was blamed for the attack on Bhutto, and shortly thereafter the suicide bomber was said to have ties to al Qaeda. However, by late on Friday, December 28th, Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was fingered as the mastermind behind Mrs. Bhutto’s assassination. By Saturday morning, spokespeople for Mehsud had issued a formal denial of his involvement.

The former high ranking CIA official says that the US has gotten the “Mehsud intelligence” from Pakistan, but has not been able to independently confirm it. “The intelligence is in the form of intercepts that are attributed to Mehsud,” said the source. “He is said to be sending a congratulatory message, but we have no independent intelligence to confirm this.”

A current US official, who was not comfortable being identified in any form due to the delicate situation between the US and Pakistan, confirmed that Mehsud is all the US has in terms of any leads in the assassination.

“In terms of responsibility, there are indications that point to militants, including Beitullah Mehsud. But that’s not a firm, final, definitive conclusion. There’s more work to be done.”

By Sunday, the Guardian was reporting that “The Pakistani authorities are reported to have drafted a plan to ‘eliminate’ Baitullah Mehsud … despite widespread suspicion within Pakistan that he is being used as a scapegoat.”

However, two former CIA officials say that there is far too much evidence pointing away from militants being behind the attack.

Indeed, the changing official position as to the cause of death indicates that someone was very interested in making it appear that Mrs. Bhutto had died in a suicide bombing, with initial medical reports out of Rawalpindi on Thursday claiming she had died as the result of the explosion.

By Friday morning, as audio of the gun shots surfaced, state-run media in Pakistan reported that Mrs. Bhutto died as a result of a gunshot wound to the neck, combined with shrapnel from the explosion. It was said the suicide bomber had first fired on Mrs. Bhutto and then detonated his explosives.

By Friday evening, however, the official story had changed yet again, with reports coming out that although bullets were fired, none had hit Mrs. Bhutto. On Saturday morning, the story changed once more, with an official medical report ruling that Mrs. Bhutto died from shrapnel received to the head as a result of the suicide bombing.

Yet also on Saturday, General Javed Iqbal Cheema, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Interior Ministry – who cited the same medical report – said Mrs. Bhutto had died as a result of a skull fracture sustained when she either fell against the sunroof lever after the explosion or attempted to hide from the explosion inside the vehicle. Medical examiners admitted that no autopsy was done.

As footage of the gunman began to appear in the press, the official story changed again, to the cause of death being two gunshot wounds to the head and one to the neck. The changing versions of what happened, who had committed the crime, and the rising violence in Pakistan as protestors demanded answers, caused Musharref to finally agree to allow a foreign body to investigate the assassination.

US foreign policy held hostage

“The investigation will be opaque and less effective than what happened in Lebanon,” said Larry Johnson, former CIA officer and Deputy Director for Transportation Security, Antiterrorism Assistance Training, and Special Operations for the office of Counterterrorism in the US State Department.

Others interviewed for this article share Johnson’s skepticism and believe that the Bush administration will likely look the other way should any connection between Musharraf and the assassination be discovered, because, they say, at this point, the US has “no workable solution” and cannot discontinue support for Musharraf, given the options.

“We are being held hostage to Musharraf’s whim,” said one former intelligence official.

“What options do we have now? None. Under Musharraf, al Qaeda has grown. The tribal sheiks have also grown. It is a mess and there is not a damn thing we can do about it.”

Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons, close ties to both al Qaeda and the Taliban, and funding from Saudi Arabia make Musharraf and his military dictatorship formidable. The only thing that US officials fear more than the Musharraf dictatorship is its alternative, a civil war and violence in a country which possess both WMD and terrorists.

The Bush administration is, however, feeling a great deal of pressure to pull back support for Musharraf. Many believe this will be handled by the US not asking too many questions about what happened to Mrs. Bhutto and why.

When asked why the West was even bothering with an investigation that would surely neither help alleviate pressure for any of the parties nor ease diplomatic tension when there is already no viable political solution, one US intelligence official responded that “This investigation is not being done for [the United States]. We are not the audience. The Pakistani people are.”

Update: In a comment on the implications if Musharraf were found to be complicit in Bhutto’s killing, Hady Amr, a fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brookings Doha Center, writes:

“It would be a tragedy for the people of Pakistan if someone in the current government was in any way complicit in either of the two assassination attempts. I met with Mrs. Bhutto this past fall and can attest that she was a strong-minded person who felt she was on a mission, as a candidate, to improve things in her country. I would hope that the current government was in no way complicit in these two assassination attempts. There are too many factors to suggest in advance what the US response should be. However, with many billions of dollars of US aid spent in Pakistan, the US Government certainly has significant leverage over – and significant interest in – what happens in Pakistan, the only Muslim-majority country with nuclear weapons.”

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