With friends like these

August 19, 2004

LAST WEEK we reported that the government in Pakistan was furious that the identity of an arrested al-Qaida suspect had been leaked by someone in the Bush administration. The leak forced both the Pakistani and British governments to move in prematurely on other suspects and wrap up investigations earlier than they would have liked. It looked like someone in Washington had blundered badly, and we pointed that out.

But now come reports -- including one in The New York Times, which earlier had been the first newspaper to publish the identity of the arrested man -- suggesting that the leaker was a Pakistani official, not an American. (For what it's worth, the Pakistani government still blames the United States.) That would let the Bush administration off the hook -- but it speaks volumes about the difficult and murky circumstances surrounding the effort to hunt down al-Qaida.

Pakistan is America's most important ally against al-Qaida -- and at times the least reliable. Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaida figures are still believed to be hiding somewhere along the border with Afghanistan. But Pakistan's potential usefulness is not simply geographic: It was the main sponsor of the Taliban regime that harbored al-Qaida, and its government and intelligence service are still home to plenty of Taliban sympathizers (as is the population at large). Terrorist cells evidently operate in Pakistan's cities. At the same time, Pakistani president Gen. Pervez Musharraf aligned his country with the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, and the Pakistanis have engaged in periodic sweeps of the border region with the occasional positive result.

How much of that is genuine determination and how much is show? It's difficult to tell. Is Pakistan stringing Washington along? Probably, to some extent. Nevertheless, it appears that the arrest of the suspect, Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, led directly to the British discovery of surveillance by al-Qaida operatives in the United States, and that may be significant.

If Mr. Khan's name was leaked by a Pakistani official, was it to torpedo continuing investigations, or was it a careless moment of boastfulness? Well, it's always risky to rule out incompetence as an explanation for shoddy behavior.

Pakistan is a difficult case, all of it complicated by the government's links to jihadists fighting against India in Kashmir. Still, a less than steadfast ally is better than no ally at all -- particularly considering that Islamic Pakistan is a nuclear power. The lesson for the United States is to be as clear-eyed and vigilant as it can be. Oh -- and if that leak came from Washington after all? Next time, put a lid on it.

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