Published on
The Guardian/UK

CIA Chief in Pakistan Leaves after Drone Trial Blows his Cover

Jonathan Banks, station chief In Islamabad, back in US after calls for him to be charged with murder over drone attack

Declan Welsh

Pakistani tribesmen from Waziristan protest against US drone attacks, outside parliament in Islamabad. (Photograph: T Mughal/EPA)

has pulled its station chief from Islamabad, one of America's most
important spy posts, after his cover was blown in a legal action brought
by victims of US drone strikes in the tribal belt.

The officer, named in Pakistan
as Jonathan Banks, left the country yesterday, after a tribesman
publicly accused him of being responsible for the death of his brother
and son in a CIA drone strike in December 2009. Karim Khan, a journalist from North Waziristan, called for Banks to be charged with murder and executed.

a rare move, the CIA called Banks home yesterday, citing "security
concerns" and saying he had received death threats, Washington officials
told Associated Press. Khan's lawyer said he was fleeing the
possibility of prosecution.

"This is just diplomatic language they
are using. Banks is a liability to the CIA because he's likely to be
called to court. They want to save him, and themselves, the
embarrassment," said lawyer Shahzad Akbar. Pakistani media reports have
claimed that Banks entered the country on a business visa, and therefore
does not enjoy diplomatic immunity from prosecution.

The recall
comes at a sensitive moment for Washington. This week's Afghanistan
policy review brought fresh focus on Taliban safe havens in Pakistan's
tribal belt. Meanwhile CIA drone attacks – which are co-ordinated from
the Islamabad embassy – have reached a new peak. Three drones struck
targets in Khyber, a previously untouched tribal agency, on Friday,
reportedly killing 24 people and signalling a widening of the CIA covert

The drones enjoy quiet support from the Pakistani
government and military but are intensely unpopular among the wider
public. Public anger over civilian casualties has focused on Karim Khan,
who first publicised his case with a $500m (£323m) civil law suit that
named Banks, CIA director Leon Panetta and the US defence secretary,
Robert Gates, as respondents.

Few legal experts expect the case to
succeed, but it has renewed uneasiness over drones. There have been
over 100 strikes so this year, twice as many as in 2009.

identity of the CIA station chief is a closely guarded secret in any
country. Khan's lawyer said he had obtained Banks's name from one
Pakistani journalist and confirmed it with a second. "I asked around,
then got an answer after three or four days of searching," he said.

was also speculation that Banks could have been named by a disgruntled
element within Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency. Last
month, several senior ISI officials were named in a New York legal
action brought by relatives of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

It is
unusual for the CIA to recall such a senior spy. Station chiefs were
recalled from Israel in 1999 and Argentina in 2001 after being
identified in the local media. Today, several US media outlets did not
name Banks, citing national security concerns. His identity has been
widely reported in Pakistan and India.

Akbar, the lawyer, said the
unusual legal action had attracted another 14 families of alleged drone
victims from the tribal belt. They intend to bring a class action suit
against the CIA in early January, he said.

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