The Cable

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.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Cable

Clinton confronts the paradox of America’s role in the Arab Spring

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech on Monday night that her aides are billing as a major address regarding the challenge facing U.S. foreign policy toward the Arab Spring, and how the United States balances its security interests with its support for expanding democratic rights in the region.

"For the Middle East, this has been a year like no other. In Tunis, Cairo and a newly free Tripoli, I have met people lifted by a sense that their futures actually belong to them. In my travels across the region, I have heard joy, purpose and newfound pride," Clinton said in remarks at the National Democratic Institute's gala event. "But I've also heard questions. I've heard skepticism about American motives and commitments; people wondering if, after decades of working with the governments of the region, America doesn't -- in our heart of hearts -- actually long for the old days."

"The speech takes on the hard questions that people in the region -- and people back here -- have been asking about the U.S. government's policy response to the Arab Spring," a State Department official told The Cable.

Explaining that the United States isn't driving the events in the region, Clinton proceeded to repeat and then answer several of the questions she has heard at home and abroad about the administration's response to the Arab spring. Here are the questions she posed to herself, in bold, followed by her answers.

Does the Obama administration really believe democratic change is in America's interest?

"We begin by rejecting the false choice between progress and stability...America pushed for reform, but often not hard enough. Today, we recognize that the real choice is between reform and unrest," she said. "So the risks posed by transitions will not keep us from pursuing positive change. But they do raise the stakes for getting it right."

Why does the United States seem to promote democracy in some Arab countries -- such as Egypt, Libya, Syria -- but not in others, like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen?

"Situations vary dramatically from country to country. It would be foolish to take a one-size-fits-all approach and barrel forward regardless of circumstances on the ground," Clinton said. "Our choices also reflect other interests in the region with a real impact on Americans' lives -- including our fight against al Qaeda; defense of our allies; and a secure supply of energy... Fundamentally, there is a right side of history. We want to be on it."

What will the United States do if democracy brings anti-U.S. governments to power?

"The suggestion that faithful Muslims cannot thrive in a democracy is insulting, dangerous, and wrong. They do it in this country every day," Clinton said. "Parties committed to democracy must reject violence; they must abide by the rule of law and respect the freedoms of speech, association, and assembly; they must respect the rights of women and minorities; they must let go of power if defeated at the polls; and, in a region with deep divisions within and between religions, they cannot be the spark that starts a conflagration. In other words, what parties call themselves is less important than what they do."

What is the U.S. role in the Arab Spring?

"These revolutions are not ours -- they are not by us, for us, or against us. But we do have a role. We have the resources, capabilities and expertise to support those who seek peaceful, meaningful democratic reform," Clinton said. "And with so much that can go wrong and so much that can go right, support for emerging Arab democracies is an investment we can't afford not to make."

What about the rights and aspirations of the Palestinians?

"Of course, we understand that Israel faces risks in a changing region -- just as it did before the Arab Spring began. It will remain an American priority to ensure that all parties honor the peace treaties they have signed and commitments they have made. We will help Israel defend itself. And we will address threats to regional peace whether they come from dictatorships or democracies," Clinton said. "But it would shortsighted to think either side can simply put peacemaking on hold until the current upheaval is done. The truth is, the stalemate in the Arab-Israeli conflict is one more status quo in the Middle East that cannot be sustained."

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images