By Elise Labott and Pam Benson
The conviction of a Pakistani doctor who tried to help the CIA locate the hiding place of Osama bin Laden is further exacerbating tensions between Washington and Islamabad and could affect U.S. ability to negotiate a deal with Pakistan over re-opening NATO supply lines, senior U.S. officials told CNN.
Dr. Shakil Afridi on Wednesday was convicted of treason for having assisted the United States in trying to uncover the location of the terror leader last year under the guise of a vaccination campaign in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He was sentenced to 33 years by a tribal court in northwestern Pakistan, and sent to prison in Peshawar following the ruling.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have both spoken of their concern for Afridi, and have called for his release.
Clinton said Thursday that the United States "does not believe there is any basis for holding Dr. Afridi."
"His help, after all, was instrumental in taking down one of the world's most notorious murderers."
"This action by Dr. Afridi helped to bring about the end of the reign of terror - designed and executed by bin Laden - (and) was not in anyway a betrayal of Pakistan. ... We will continue to press it with the government of Pakistan."
Senior U.S. officials said Afridi worked with the United States prior to the bin Laden raid, but was never asked to spy on Pakistan and was only asked to help locate al-Qaeda terrorists posing a threat to both Pakistan and the United States.
"Over the course of his several years of service, Dr. Afridi was able to provide valuable information on al Qaeda in the FATA, the group's safe-haven," a senior U.S. official with knowledge of Afridi's activities in Pakistan told CNN. "Dr. Afridi was inadvertently able to confirm something we already suspected - that bin Laden's couriers practiced extraordinary operational security. Was that a key to the raid? No. Was it important? Absolutely."
Another senior U.S. official with knowledge of counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in Pakistan told CNN that Afridi "helped save Pakistani and American lives. His activities were not treasonous, they were heroic and patriotic."
Afridi's conviction adds to an already-damaged and fractured relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Relations between the two countries essentially froze last November following the accidental killing of Pakistani soldiers in a NATO airstrike. Pakistan in turn closed supply lines into Afghanistan that NATO used to support the war effort.
Senior administration officials pointed to Clinton's statement about the ruling, which she made unprompted by any questions from journalists, as evidence of the seriousness with which the U.S. takes the issue.
Senior State Department officials have pointed to her remarks and reinforced her message in subsequent calls with Pakistani officials, the senior administration officials said.
"We are saying exactly along the lines of what she said," one senior official said. "We tell the Pakistanis they have agreed bin Laden should not have been in their country and we could easily argue that they should have been helping us get him. This case colors the attitude of the U.S. government, but also of the U.S. Congress at budget time."
Congressional outrage was in full force Thursday as the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut $33 million from the military aid package to Pakistan.
The figure derived from Afridi's 33-year sentence.
The 30-0 roll call was based on an amendment to the Senate version of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. The amendment calls for the $33 million to be upheld until "the Secretary of State reports to the Committees on Appropriations that Dr. Shakil Afridi has been released from prison and cleared of all charges relating to the assistance provided to the United States in locating Osama bin Laden."
The amendment was sponsored by Sens. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina; Dan Coats, R-Indiana; Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont; Dianne Feinstein, D-California; and Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey.
"For them to do what they did signals this is a pretty big issue," the senior administration official said.
Officials said Afridi's case could tie U.S. hands to negotiate a deal with Pakistan to reopen its border with Afghanistan to military shipments of departing NATO forces, which would resolve a sticky issue in planning the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Pakistan closed the ground routes after a NATO airstrike in November killed two dozen of its soldiers. NATO insists the incident was an accident. Obama offered his condolences, but refused to apologize.
The United States and Pakistan have not come to an agreement on the price of reopening the supply lines, known as the ground lines of communication or GLOCs. The senior U.S. officials said the deal is essentially done except for agreement on a fee for trucks that cross the border. Pakistan was requesting $5,000 per truck as a condition to reopen the supply lines between the two South Asian countries but previously, the United States had been paying just a "small fraction" of the requested fee and is not expected to pay the stiff fees, officials said.
"We are talking now about the GLOCs but the Afridi issue could hurt our ability to negotiate a deal," the second senior U.S. official said. "If Congress did what it did yesterday, what else are they going to do?