The CIA has concluded that members of al-Qaeda and allies of Pakistani tribal leader Baitullah Mehsud were responsible for last month's assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and that they also stand behind a new wave of violence threatening that country's stability, the agency's director, Michael V. Hayden, said in an interview.
Offering the most definitive public assessment by a U.S. intelligence official, Hayden said Bhutto was killed by fighters allied with Mehsud, a tribal leader in northwestern Pakistan, with support from al-Qaeda's terrorist network. That view mirrors the Pakistani government's assertions.
The same alliance between local and international terrorists poses a grave risk to the government of President Pervez Musharraf, a close U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, Hayden said in 45-minute interview with The Washington Post. "What you see is, I think, a change in the character of what's going on there," he said. "You've got this nexus now that probably was always there in latency but is now active: a nexus between al-Qaeda and various extremist and separatist groups."
Hayden added, "It is clear that their intention is to continue to try to do harm to the Pakistani state as it currently exists."
Days after Bhutto's Dec. 27 assassination in the city of Rawalpindi, Pakistani officials released intercepted communications between Mehsud and his supporters in which the tribal leader praised the killing and, according to the officials, appeared to take credit for it. Pakistani and U.S. officials have declined to comment on the origin of that intercept, but the administration has until now been cautious about publicly embracing the Pakistani assessment.
Widespread suspicion of Musharraf
Many Pakistanis have voiced suspicions that Musharraf's government played a role in Bhutto's assassination, and Bhutto's family has alleged a wide conspiracy involving government officials. Hayden declined to discuss the intelligence behind the CIA's assessment, which is at odds with that view and supports Musharraf's assertions.
"This was done by that network around Baitullah Mehsud. We have no reason to question that," Hayden said. He described the killing as "part of an organized campaign" that has included suicide bombings and other attacks on Pakistani leaders.
Some administration officials outside the agency who deal with Pakistani issues were less conclusive, with one calling the assertion "a very good assumption."
One of the officials said there was no "incontrovertible" evidence to prove or rebut the assessment.
Al-Qaida rebuilding in region
Hayden made his statement shortly before a series of attacks occurred this week on Pakistani political figures and army units. Pakistani officials have blamed them on Mehsud's forces and other militants. On Wednesday, a group of several hundred insurgents overran a military outpost in the province of South Waziristan, killing 22 government paramilitary troops. The daring daylight raid was carried out by rebels loyal to Mehsud, Pakistani authorities said.
For more than a year, U.S. officials have been nervously watching as al-Qaeda rebuilt its infrastructure in the rugged tribal regions along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, often with the help of local sympathizers.
In recent months, U.S. intelligence officials have said, the relationship between al-Qaeda and local insurgents has been strengthened by a common antipathy toward the pro-Western Musharraf government. The groups now share resources and training facilities and sometimes even plan attacks together, they said.
"We've always viewed that to be an ultimate danger to the United States," Hayden said, "but now it appears that it is a serious base of danger to the current well-being of Pakistan."
Policy hasn't changed, Hayden says
Hayden's anxieties about Pakistan's stability are echoed by other U.S. officials who have visited Pakistan since Bhutto's assassination. White House, intelligence and Defense Department officials have held a series of meetings to discuss U.S. options in the event that the current crisis deepens, including the possibility of covert action involving Special Forces.
Hayden declined to comment on the policy meetings but said that the CIA already was heavily engaged in the region and has not shifted its officers or changed its operations significantly since the crisis began.
"The Afghan-Pakistan border region has been an area of focus for this agency since about 11 o'clock in the morning of September 11, , and I really mean this," Hayden said. "We haven't done a whole lot of retooling there in the last one week, one month, three months, six months and so on. This has been up there among our very highest priorities."
Hayden said that the United States has "not had a better partner in the war on terrorism than the Pakistanis." The turmoil of the past few weeks has only deepened that cooperation, he said, by highlighting "what are now even more clearly mutual and common interests."
Hayden also acknowledged the difficulties -- diplomatic and practical -- involved in helping combat extremism in a country divided by ethnic, religious and cultural allegiances. "This looks simpler the further away you get from it," he said. "And the closer you get to it, geography, history, culture all begin to intertwine and make it more complex."
Regarding the public controversy over the CIA's harsh interrogation of detainees at secret prisons, Hayden reiterated previous agency statements that lives were saved and attacks were prevented as a result of those interrogations.
He said he does not support proposals, put forward by some lawmakers in recent weeks, to require the CIA to abide by the Army Field Manual in conducting interrogations. The manual, adopted by the Defense Department, prohibits the use of many aggressive methods, including a simulated-drowning technique known as waterboarding.
"I would offer my professional judgment that that will make us less capable in gaining the information we need," he said.
Staff writer Robin Wright and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.