Pakistan allowed Chinese military engineers to photograph and take samples from the top secret stealth helicopter that U.S. special forces left behind when they killed Osama bin Laden, the Financial Times has learnt.
The action is the latest incident to underscore the increasingly complicated relationship and lack of trust between Islamabad and Washington following the raid.
"The U.S. now has information that Pakistan, particularly the ISI, gave access to the Chinese military to the downed helicopter in Abbottabad," said one person in intelligence circles, referring to the Pakistani spy agency. The Chinese engineers were allowed to survey the wreckage and take photographs of it, as well as take samples of the special "stealth" skin that allowed the American team to enter Pakistan undetected by radar, he said.
President Barack Obama's national security council had been discussing this incident and trying to decide how to respond. A senior official said the situation “doesn't make us happy”, but that the administration had little recourse.
As Navy Seals raided Bin Laden's compound in the military city of Abbottabad, just outside Islamabad, in May, one of their modified Black Hawk helicopters crashed into the wall of the compound, rendering it inoperable.
The Seals used a hammer to smash the instruments then rigged up explosives to detonate it in an effort to keep classified military technology secret, but the tail section landed outside the compound wall and remained intact. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, went to Pakistan two weeks after the raid to secure the tail's return.
At the time, Pakistani officials, who were livid that the U.S. carried out the raid without informing Islamabad first, hinted that the Chinese were interested in looking at the wreckage, and photographs of the tail circulated on the internet. But people close to the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency have told the FT that the Chinese were in fact given access to the helicopter.
"We had explicitly asked the Pakistanis in the immediate aftermath of the raid not to let anyone have access to the damaged remains of the helicopter," said the person close to the CIA.
Senior U.S. officials confronted General Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistan military, about this but he flatly denied it, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting. A senior Pakistani official also denied it to the FT. China declined to comment, as did the White House and CIA.
Beijing has a strong military relationship with Islamabad and is a major supplier of weapons to the Pakistani military.
"The Chinese would have enormous interest in this newfangled technology," said the person involved in confronting the Pakistanis. "They [Seals] did not blow the thing up for no reason," he said.
However, the senior government official said it was “hard to say” how useful the information would have been. “Most of the helicopter was virtually destroyed during the operation,” he said.