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CIA files show Pakistani knowledge of drones

Country given regular briefings on strikes by US

WASHINGTON — Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA’s drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by the Washington Post.

The files describe dozens of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal region and include maps as well as before-and-after aerial photos of targeted compounds over a four-year stretch from 2008 to 2011 in which the campaign intensified dramatically.

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Markings on the documents indicate that many of them were prepared by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center specifically to be shared with Pakistan’s government. They tout the success of strikes that killed dozens of alleged Al Qaeda operatives and assert repeatedly that no civilians were harmed.

Pakistan’s tacit approval of the drone program has been one of the more poorly kept national security secrets in Washington and Islamabad. During the early years of the campaign, the CIA even used Pakistani airstrips for its Predator fleet.

But the files expose the explicit nature of a secret arrangement struck between the two countries at a time when neither was willing to publicly acknowledge the existence of the drone program. The documents detailed at least 65 strikes in Pakistan and were described as ‘‘talking points’’ for CIA briefings, which occurred with such regularity that they became a matter of diplomatic routine. The documents are marked ‘‘top secret’’ but cleared for release to Pakistan.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. A CIA spokesman declined to discuss the documents but did not dispute their authenticity.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, reiterated his country’s objections to the drone campaign this week during his first visit to Washington since taking office this year.

The files expose the arrangement’s explicit nature at a time when neither country was willing to publicly acknowledge the drone program.

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CIA strikes ‘‘have deeply disturbed and agitated our people,’’ Sharif said in a speech Tuesday at the US Institute of Peace. ‘‘This issue has become a major irritant in our bilateral relationship as well. I will, therefore, stress the need for an end to drone attacks.’’

He raised the issue in a meeting Wednesday with President Obama, ‘‘emphasizing the need for an end to such strikes.’’ Sharif did not publicly elaborate on how Pakistan would seek to halt a campaign that has tapered off but remains a core part of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy.

The files serve as a detailed timeline of the CIA drone program, tracing its evolution from a campaign aimed at a relatively short list of senior Al Qaeda operatives to a broader aerial assault against militant groups with no connection to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The records also expose the distrust and dysfunction that has afflicted US-Pakistani relations even amid their undeclared collaboration on drone strikes.

Some files describe tense meetings in which senior US officials, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, confront their Pakistani counterparts with US intelligence purporting to show Pakistan’s ties to militant groups involved in attacks on American forces, a charge that Islamabad has consistently denied.

In one case, Clinton cited ‘‘cell phones and written material from dead bodies that point all fingers’’ at a militant group based in Pakistan, according to a diplomatic cable dated Sept. 20, 2011. ‘‘The U.S. had intelligence proving ISI was involved with these groups,’’ the cable said, referring to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

In a measure of the antagonism between the two sides, a 2010 memo sent by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its embassy in Washington outlined a plan to undermine the CIA.

‘‘Kindly find enclosed a list of 36 U.S. citizens who are [believed] to be CIA special agents and would be visiting Pakistan for some special task,’’ said the memo, signed by an official listed as the country’s director general for Americas. ‘‘Kindly do not repeat not issue visas to the same.’’

The earliest of the files describes 15 strikes from December 2007 through September 2008. All but two of the entries identify specific Al Qaeda figures as targets.

The campaign has since killed as many as 3,000 people, including thousands of militants and hundreds of civilians, according to independent estimates.

There have been 23 strikes in Pakistan this year, far below the peak number of attacks, 117, set in 2010. The latest strike occurred Sept. 29, when three alleged fighters with ties to the militant Haqqani network were killed in North Waziristan, according to news media reports.

Several documents refer to a direct Pakistani role in the selection of targets.

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