The treason conviction and 33-year prison sentence given the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA locate Osama bin Laden last year has outraged U.S. leaders who see Shakeel Afridi as a hero in their campaign against terrorism.
A Senate panel voted to slash aid to Pakistan by $33 million -- a million for each year of Afridi's sentence. Senate Armed Services Committee members John McCain and Carl Levin, in a bipartisan blast at Islamabad, demanded that Afridi be pardoned and released, saying his help in finding Bin Laden was "the furthest thing from treason." Another lawmaker, Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, has introduced legislation to award U.S. citizenship and the Congressional Gold Medal to the jailed surgeon.
But Afridi's spying on behalf of another nation would violate laws in the U.S. and other developed nations as well.
The Constitution defines treason as "levying war" or aiding the enemy in a conflict, and only one U.S. citizen has been charged with treason since World War II -- fugitive Al Qaeda activist Adam Gadahn in 2006. U.S. courts, though, have convicted dozens of citizens and legal residents in the post-war era on an array of charges for spying on behalf of foreign powers.
Afridi, who could have been sentenced to death, was dealt with more lightly than U.S. citizen Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for passing classified information to Israel in the 1980s.
Pollard worked as a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy when he provided classified documents to Israeli agents for money and jewels. Israeli and American Jewish group have tried to gain his freedom since his 1989 conviction for spying. He was given Israeli citizenship in 1995 and his incarceration at a federal prison in North Carolina continues to be a thorn in the side of U.S.-Israeli relations.
Espionage, whether for friend or foe, remains a dangerous business that can land operatives in prison for years -- even if they succeeded in passing on little of value.
Witness the case of five Cubans serving terms of 15 years-to-life in U.S. prisons for acting as "unregistered foreign agents" when they sought to infiltrate radical anti-Communist Cuban emigre groups in Southern Florida a dozen years ago. None of the five were accused of obtaining or relaying classified information to Havana. But their aim of gathering evidence of plots to kill then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro was enough to secure convictions in 2001 in the heated aftermath of the U.S.-Cuba custody battle over young castaway Elian Gonzalez.
In 2007, a couple of Cuban American academics at Florida International University, Carlos and Elsa Alvarez, were convicted of conspiring to act as an unregistered Cuban agents for attempting to keep Havana authorities informed about the politics and activities of prominent emigres.
No state secrets were reported stolen by the 10 Russians arrested two years ago on an alleged mission to blend in and befriend the powerful in Washington and on Wall Street. U.S. intelligence officials have described the spies, who were swapped for four U.S. captive agents less than two weeks later, as "the cream of the crop" of Moscow's intelligence operatives. The Kremlin has treated them as heroes, using what would have been hushed up as an embarrassment during the Cold War as an opportunity to cast its espionage as newly sophisticated and effective.
Pakistan's punishment of Afridi may have its own political or propaganda objectives. U.S. lawmakers have accused Pakistan of failing to deter Al Qaeda and Taliban forces operating in the volatile areas bordering Afghanistan. Afridi's sentence on Wednesday was announced two days after what Islamabad likely perceived as a snub by President Obama, who pointedly left out Pakistan in thanking nations that have helped the NATO alliance get crucial supplies into Afghanistan.
The demands for immediate relief for Afridi by McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Michigan Democrat Levin illustrate the intensifying strains in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, despite Washington's $2 billion-plus in annual aid to Islamabad. Pakistan has cut off supply routes to NATO and frozen ties with the alliance since a November airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.
Reaction to Afridi's plight from the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department has been more muted, probably in hopes that the matter can be resolved without further damage to the relationship.
“Anyone who supported the United States in finding Osama bin Laden was not working against Pakistan, they were working against Al Qaeda,” Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters last week.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration considered Afridi's treatment "unjust and unwarranted," and that the United States would continue to raise the matter in discussions with Pakistani officials.
Under the guise of conducting a vaccination campaign, Afridi provided crucial information that helped U.S. intelligence agents locate Bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta disclosed earlier this year. Afridi was arrested by Pakistani authorities shortly after a Navy SEAL team killed Bin Laden on May 2, 2011.
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Photo: A newspaper bearing the photo of Pakistani surgeon Shakeel Afridi being read at a news stand in Karachi, Pakistan, on Friday. Credit: Asif Hassan/AFP.