March 12th, 2010
12:51 PM ET

Why all the confusion about identities of prize catches?

Adam Gadahn, a U.S.-born spokesman for al Qaeda

Was he or wasn't he?  You might have been scratching your head as you read conflicting reports about whether Adam Gadahn, the American-born mouthpiece for al Qaeda, had been captured in Pakistan.  Some unnamed Pakistani officials said they got him, while anonymous American officials shot back that there is no evidence to support the claim. 

Now we are as certain as we can be that it is not him.  We have both Pakistani and American officials saying Gadahn is not in custody, but why the contradictions, the confusion in the first place? 

Former senior U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say the Pakistani government has been very good at letting the U.S. know within a reasonable period of time when it has captured someone noteworthy.  Furthermore, they say the Pakistanis want credit for it.  But it can be complicated. 

One reason: Pakistan is hardly a cohesive society. Large portions of the country lie outside the control of the central government.  The authorities at the federal level sometimes don't know what is going on in far-flung parts of the country.  In some parts – like North and South Waziristan – tribes are much more influential than the government.  Foreign extremists and terrorists need the blessings of tribal leaders to remain within their territory.   

Often times suspects are caught in remote areas.   It takes time for the Pakistanis to understand who they have.  Physical appearances might have changed, dental records or fingerprints aren't readily available.  

Once it is established they have a prized catch – especially if it’s an al Qaeda or Afghan Taliban leader – then the Pakistani officials have to decide how to handle the suspect.   The U.S. will undoubtedly want access to the individual.  If the person is an American, then the Pakistanis would be obligated to provide at the very least, U.S. consular access. There could be requests to transfer the person to the United States or elsewhere. 

Pakistani officials may also want some time to figure out how they will play their cards.  What will they get for their efforts?  One thing they don't want is to be seen as being in the pocket of America.

 The U.S. could have it own motives for not wanting a name to be immediately disclosed.  What intelligence can be gained through interrogation while the suspect's cohorts are unaware of the detention?  It’s been reported that news of the detention in February of the Taliban’s #2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was held back for several days for this reason.  In the case of an American citizen, the U.S. might want to have physical control of the person before an announcement out of fear the transfer would be blocked or the suspected terrorist is set free.  A court in Lahore, for example, recently blocked any attempt to extradite Baradar to Afghanistan where Americans would likely have better access if not outright control of him.

While one former U.S. official maintains the Pakistanis would not lie to the U.S. about the identity of someone in detention, another says the U.S. is still wary when it comes to completely trusting the Pakistanis.   According to this former official, there are many factions in the government who will deceive you or not tell you everything.  And this person believes the Pakistani government today is more disjointed than was the case during the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf.

Regardless of whether the U.S. would have wanted to delay disclosure of a capture, current and former government officials say that to mislead or lie to the press would simply be asking for trouble, and cost the U.S. government credibility.         

The value to keeping a name secret is to use the time to get as much information as possible before the person's contacts know what has happened. "Once it is out there, it's done," an official says.  

One of the officials summed up the confusion over the fate of Adam Gadahn as an unfortunate distraction from the co-operative relationship that has developed between the U.S. and Pakistan in tracking down and arresting terrorist suspects.

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