For the third time in three years, a CIA station chief has been outed in Pakistan, a country where the CIA is running one of its largest covert operations. It’s a remarkable record of failure by the CIA, since each outing, which has required a replacement of the station chief position, causes a breakdown in the agency’s network of contacts in the country.
The full names of all three station chiefs have been published widely in Pakistan and India and all over the world via the Internet—though Americans getting their news exclusively from domestic mainstream media wouldn’t know, as those organizations have consistently blacked out the names.
The latest outing was the work of a major political organization, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) and its founder, cricket star Imran Khan, who has been calling for an end to US drone strikes inside his country. Khan’s party came in second in Pakistan’s recent parliamentary election.
The PTI, angry that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has not demanded a halt to the US “targeted killing” of Pakistanis, filed a public complaint with police in late November.
Outed: Craig Osth
That complaint, called a “nomination letter,” identified as the alleged CIA station chief Craig Peters Osth, and said he was residing and working—illegally, if actually working as a spy and not a diplomat —in the US Embassy.
In the complaint, the PTI accused Osth of being responsible for a deadly November 21 drone strike inside Khan’s home district, which is outside the Pashtun tribal area to which such attacks have normally been confined. The letter also called for the arrest of CIA Director John Brennan, accusing him of “waging war against Pakistan.”
US drone strikes are hugely unpopular in Pakistan, as they are seen as violating Pakistan’s sovereignty and and because they have killed a large number of civilians, including women and many children.
The CIA has refused to confirm or deny Osth’s role in the Agency, or even if he is on its payroll. But in this case the CIA’s standard stonewalling rings especially hollow: this is not Osth’s first outing.
In 1999 he was identified as the CIA’s station chief in Brazil by a Brazilian magazine, Carta Capital. At the time, the issue was the CIA’s reported bugging of the private telephone of Brazil’s then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Osth has turned up elsewhere too. A classified US State Department cable, published by WikiLeaks in 2011, lists him as being present at a high-level meeting in the US Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, in 2005. The meeting, which included Osth, the US ambassador, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggesting at least that Osth would have been the top CIA official in the country, concerned tactics to use against rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and US military support for the government’s war against that organization. Osth is listed in the cable as being with the ORA, the acronym for a shadowy “Office of Regional Affairs”—technically an office of the State Department, but known to function as a CIA cover.
Outed: Jonathan Banks
In 2010, another alleged CIA station chief in Pakistan, Jonathan Banks, was outed by anti-drone campaign activists, and was forced to leave the country. One reason for his hasty departure was that he reportedly began receiving death threats from militants after his name surfaced.
Outed: Mark Carlton
Seven months later, the name of Banks’ alleged replacement, Mark Carlton, was disclosed—reportedly by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the ISI—to a Pakistani newspaper, The Nation. The CIA pulled him out of the country for what was said to be medical reasons.
Carlton was reportedly the CIA’s alleged station chief during the Seal Team 6 raid on the Abbottabad housing compound allegedly belonging to Osama Bin Laden—a deadly night-time assault that was conducted without any advance notice to Pakistan authorities.
Outed through his own actions: Raymond Davis
Carlton would also have been the Agency’s top man in country in early 2011 when CIA contractor Raymond Davis, a former Special Forces soldier, was arrested by Lahore police after fatally shooting two young men believed to have been tailing him for the ISI.
Davis, initially identified by the US as an “official” with the US Consulate in Lahore, claimed the men had tried to rob him, but Pakistani police charged him with murder, noting that he had fired into their backs through the front windshield of his car, with witnesses claiming at least one of the two had been fleeing at the time he was shot.
Davis was jailed without bail pending trial, but the murder charge was dropped to assault and he was then pardoned by the court as part of a Sharia-law deal: the US, through a Pakistan government intermediary, quietly paid a reported $2.3 million in restitution to his victims’ families (including the family of a distraught young woman, the bride of one of the slain men, who had committed suicide by drinking poison after learning of her husband’s death) in return for his release from jail and permission to leave the country. Davis also paid a $20,000 fine for weapons violations, under the same Sharia deal.
At the time of Davis’s arrest, police discovered in his vehicle hundreds of rounds of high-power and armor-piercing “killer” bullets, night-vision equipment, a telescope, multiple cell phones, makeup and various disguises.
He also had a camera whose memory chip allegedly contained photos of mosques, churches and religious schools, including a Montessori school—this at a time that the country was suffering a wave of sectarian terrorist bombings of such targets. His cell phones reportedly held records of calls to top leaders of various terrorist organizations in the country.
When he was booked, Davis insisted he (like Osth in Brazil) was with the ORA, and that he therefore had diplomatic immunity. It was a dubious claim—as spies do not have diplomatic status. But he initially had the backing of both President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who publicly made the assertion, later proven false, that he was a “consular employee.”
Local police and prosecutors never had bought the US immunity claim and, based upon his marksmanship, his weapons and spy devices and his actions, suspected Davis of overseeing what they said was a wide-ranging terror campaign of bombings aimed at heightening religious tensions.
Davis’s CIA activities were never fully explained, thanks to the deal struck by the US with the Lahore court and the central government (though Washington was ultimately forced to admit Davis was a contract worker for the CIA .) But Pakistani intelligence reportedly suspected the CIA of running a “clandestine network of American and Pakistani intelligence agents” under Carlton and his predecessor Banks, without the knowledge of and beyond the control of ISI or the Pakistan national government.
As part of the Davis case settlement, the CIA was reportedly required to pull dozens of its agents out of Pakistan.
Honor Among Spies
Normally, the cloak-and-dagger world of international spying operates in accordance with a certain “honor among thieves” code. Each country typically knows the top spies from other countries who are operating out of their home countries’ embassies, using diplomatic cover.
This was common practice during the Cold War, and is still accepted practice today. Normally, too, countries don’t blow the identity of other countries’ station chiefs. When problems arise, such officers typically leave quietly, making outings rare.
Why has Pakistan yanked the covers off three alleged CIA station chiefs in so many years? Is it in response to the US extra-legal drone killing program and what it views as other overzealous covert activities inside Pakistan?
In the murky arena of spy-vs.-spy, it’s hard to establish anything definitively, and in Pakistan, things can be even more murky. Some elements of the Pakistani government and military establishment seem to back US actions in the country, perhaps wanting the US military and economic aid offered in return for granting access to the CIA and turning a blind eye to the drone attacks. But for whatever reason, it seems that Pakistan’s powerful ISI is fighting back against American incursions on Pakistani soil by disrupting the US intelligence apparatus there.
US News Blackout
Whatever the domestic and international politics it is transparently evident that there is widespread Pakistani frustration and anger over the CIA’s in-country operation — at least to everyone but Americans.
US media organizations, from the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Associated Press to CNN and the major broadcast networks, have dutifully refrained from mentioning the names of the outed station chiefs, leaving that kind of journalism to the likes of FireDogLake, the media review Extra! and TCBH! Such reticence seems curious, indeed. Both the Times and the Post, after all, had no hesitation about publishing the name of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent outed in 2003 by Vice President Dick Cheney and his deputy I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, in retaliation for her husband’s efforts to block President Bush’s plan to invade Iraq. And her outing reportedly led to the exposure of many of her contacts, particularly in the Middle East, where they were undoubtedly put at great risk.
If the goal in the Pakistani agent outings was to protect the agents’ safety, the implication would have to be that the US media are not afraid of what foreigners would do, but instead what American citizens might do—since Americans are the only ones who are being kept in the dark about who these people are.
One explanation for corporate journalism’s timidity might be the Espionage Act and the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which make publication of classified documents or the identity of an undercover CIA agent a felony. After all, the Times and Postknew the Bush/Cheney administration wasn’t going to go after them for publicly identifying Plame as a CIA agent. The Bush administration, clearly, wanted her outed. But could they be sure the Obama administration would not use these repressive acts against them for publishing Osth’s name — even though it was already widely known? Given the Obama administration’s obsession with secrecy, and its prosecutorial zeal in going after security leaks, as absurd as it sounds, anything is possible.
As Jim Naureckas, editor of the media review magazine Extra!, put it in the latest case:,
Osth’s name is no longer a secret; not only did the Pakistani party put it up on the Internet, it’s been reported by numerous regional news outlets (e.g., The Hindu–11/27/13–an Indian paper that boasts a daily circulation of 1.5 million). What’s more, Osth was publicly identified as a leading CIA officer years ago…
He adds that keeping the name out of news reports in the US
…doesn’t make anyone any safer. But it does help bolster the cult of secrecy, which holds that information is to be kept from the citizenry on general principle.
Of course, Naureckas himself was at that point making sure Osth’s name was out in the US too.
ThisCantBeHappening! joins him and the publishers of FireDogLake in helping Americans to learn what the rest of the world knows, but what the mainstream US media is content to leave in the shadows of the National Security State.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).