Exclusive: Mullen denies secret back channel in U.S.-Pakistan relationship

Exclusive: Mullen denies secret back channel in U.S.-Pakistan relationship

On Oct. 10, Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz dropped a bombshell: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, he alleged, had offered to replace Pakistan’s military and intelligence leadership and cut ties with militant groups in the wake of Osama bin Laden‘s killing in Abbottabad.

Ijaz also alleged in his op-ed in the Financial Times that Zardari communicated this offer by sending a top secret memo on May 10 through Ijaz himself, to be hand-delivered to Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a key official managing the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The details of the memo and the machinations Ijaz describes paint a picture of a Zardari government scrambling to save itself from an impending military coup following the raid on bin Laden’s compound, and asking for U.S. support to prevent that coup before it started.

Mullen, now retired, denied this week having ever dealt with Ijaz in comments given to The Cable through his spokesman at the time, Capt. John Kirby.

"Adm. Mullen does not know Mr. Ijaz and has no recollection of receiving any correspondence from him," Kirby told The Cable. "I cannot say definitively that correspondence did not come from him — the admiral received many missives as chairman from many people every day, some official, some not. But he does not recall one from this individual. And in any case, he did not take any action with respect to our relationship with Pakistan based on any such correspondence … preferring to work at the relationship directly through [Pakistani Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani and inside the interagency process."

Mullen’s denial represents the first official U.S. comment on the Ijaz memo, which since Oct. 10 has mushroomed into a huge controversy in Pakistan. Several parts of Pakistan’s civilian government denied that Ijaz’s memorandum ever existed. On Oct. 30, Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar called Ijaz’s op-ed a "fantasy article" and criticized the FT for running it in the first place.

"Mansoor Ijaz’s allegation is nothing more than a desperate bid by an individual, whom recognition and credibility has eluded, to seek media attention through concocted stories," Babar said. "Why would the president of Pakistan choose a private person of questionable credentials to carry a letter to U.S. officials? Since when Mansoor has become a courier of messages of the president of Pakistan?"

On Oct. 31, Ijaz issued a long statement doubling down on his claims and threatened to reveal the "senior Pakistani official" that purportedly sent him on his mission. Ijaz quoted Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, telling Zardari and his staff, "If you stop telling lies about me, I might just stop telling the truth about you."

The Pakistani press has given credence to Ijaz’s story because it was published in the Financial Times. "The FT is not likely to publish something which it cannot substantiate if it was so required, so any number of denials and clarifications by our diplomats or the presidency will only be for domestic consumption and would mean nothing," wrote one prominent Pakistani commentator.

This is only the latest time that Ijaz has raised controversy concerning his alleged role as a secret international diplomat. In 1996, he was accused of trying to extort money from the Pakistani government in exchange for delivering votes in the U.S. House of Representatives on a Pakistan-related trade provision.

Ijaz, who runs the firm Crescent Investment Management LLC in New York, has been an interlocutor between U.S. officials and foreign government for years, amid constant accusations of financial conflicts of interest. He reportedly arranged meetings between U.S. officials and former Pakistani Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

He also reportedly gave over $1 million to Democratic politicians in the 1990s and attended Christmas events at former President Bill Clinton‘s White House. Ijaz has ties to former CIA Director James Woolsey and his investment firm partner is Reagan administration official James Alan Abrahamson.

In the mid-1990s, Ijaz traveled to Sudan several times and claimed to be relaying messages from the Sudanese regime to the Clinton administration regarding intelligence on bin Laden, who was living there at the time. Ijaz has claimed that his work gave the United States a chance to kill the al Qaeda leader but that the Clinton administration dropped the ball. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, who served under Clinton, has called Ijaz’s allegations "ludicrous and irresponsible."

Then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has previously acknowledged that Ijaz brought the Clinton administration offers of counterterrorism cooperation from Sudan but said that actual cooperation never materialized.

So why is Ijaz’s story so popular in Pakistan, despite his long history of antagonizing the Pakistani government with such claims? According to Mehreen Zahra-Malik, who wrote about the Ijaz scandal on Oct. 29 in Pakistan’s The News, it’s all part of the culture of secrecy and conspiracy in Pakistani politics that the current civilian and military leadership in Islamabad has only continued to foster.

"When secrecy and conspiracy are part of the very system of government, a vicious cycle develops. Because truth is abhorrent, it must be concealed, and because it is concealed, it becomes ever more abhorrent. Having power then becomes about the very concealment of truth, and covering up the truth becomes the very imperative of power — and the powerful," she wrote. "The end result: a population raised on a diet of conspiracy."

Attempts to reach Ijaz for comment were unsuccessful.