I somehow doubt we’ll ever hear the full story regarding what Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus knew about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts these past five years. It is totally naïve to think they knew naught, of course; the big question is who in the spook food chain was in on the conspiracy, and (perhaps most important) what they stood to gain from keeping the matter under wraps.
My pessimism about the eventual resolution of these mysteries stems from past experience. Time and again, big-name fugitives have been found hiding in plain sight, obviously having enjoyed the protection of powerful figures. Yet no one ever seems to suffer any consequences for this sort of aiding and abetting—to mod an infamous Leona Helmsley quote, only the little people get pinched for helping evildoers. My favorite example of this truism pertains to the case of Salvatore Riina, the onetime boss of the Sicilian Mafia, who made bin Laden’s time on the lam seem like child’s play. Bin Laden, at least, reportedly kept to himself indoors; when he wasn’t luxuriating in his massive hilltop villa, Riina milled about downtown Palermo at will:
During the 23 years that Salvatore Riina lived as a fugitive, he married in the church, fathered four children born in the same clinic, circulated freely in Palermo and ruled as dictator over the Mafia.
That freedom ended with his arrest in the Sicilian capital Friday. Amid the banner headlines and expressions of joy, many Italians asked how the country’s most wanted man could have avoided capture so long…
Asked why it took so long to capture Riina, Carabinieri commander Antonio Viesti said he was protected by a “network of cover.”
It’s easy to see why the members of that network were never brought to account: They likely controlled the very apparatus charged with investigating the affair. I have no doubt that the people complicit in protecting bin Laden wield similar authority in Pakistan. In fact, those who provided cover for bin Laden will likely be the same officials who now crow the most loudly about the benefits of his demise. In corrupt systems such as early 1990s Sicily or modern-day Pakistan, the elites who last are those most adepts at playing both sides of the coin.