The outgoing U.S. military chief is interviewed on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS"
Mullen's spokesman says the admiral stands by last week's controversial comment
The White House distances itself from Mullen's comment to Congress
In the CNN interview, Mullen mildly moderates his assessment
Repeating the thrust of his controversial earlier criticism, retiring Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told CNN’s “Fareed Zarkaria GPS” on Wednesday that elements in Pakistan’s spy service are “very active” with the Haqqani network launching attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the White House on Wednesday distanced itself from Mullen’s statement to Congress last week that the Haqqani network acted as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that an unidentified Pentagon official said Mullen had overstated the link to Congress. In response, his spokesman, Capt. John Kirby, told CNN on Wednesday that Mullen “stands by every word” of his congressional testimony.
Asked by Zakaria if he overstated the situation to Congress, Mullen repeated that a link exists but referred to elements in the spy network as opposed to some kind of formal structure.
“There are elements I think of the ISI very active with Haqqani,” Mullen said, adding that “the piece” of the ISI “that is so focused on sending Taliban and insurgents into Afghanistan” from safe havens in Pakistan must be addressed by both the United States and Pakistan’s government and military.
The interview will broadcast on Sunday, the day after Mullen’s term as the nation’s top military commander ends.
His language Wednesday was closer to how the White House described the situation.
At the White House briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney responded to a question about Mullen’s statement to Congress last week by saying: “It’s not language that I would use.”
Carney said, “It is the position of the administration that there are links (between the Haqqani network and Pakistan) and that Pakistan needs to take action to address that … and to deal with the fact that there (are) safe havens for this criminal network that is dangerous for Pakistan, as well as for the United States and Afghanistan.”
Both Carney and Mullen noted how Pakistan’s government and military, including the ISI, have supported U.S. objectives against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“With respect to the ISI, we enjoy in ways a very positive relationship in some areas, we’re focused on shared interests, we’ve operated together, and from that perspective it’s been very positive and actually improving,” Mullen told Zakaria.
Last week, Mullen’s blunt accusation was interpreted as an expression of the growing impatience of U.S. officials with Pakistan’s unwillingness to stop the attacks, and the belief that elements in the Pakistani government are actively supporting the insurgents.
The attacks, including a recent attempt to strike at the NATO headquarters and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and last week’s assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was leading efforts for reconciliation talks, have raised questions about the ability of Afghan security forces to maintain control.
Mullen, appearing last Thursday for the last time before the Senate Armed Services Committee before his retirement, said Pakistan was “exporting” violence to Afghanistan.
“The Haqqani network, for one, acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s intelligence,” Mullen said then.
His comment was criticized by Pakistani officials, who denied their government was helping the Haqqani network. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar called the accusations coming out of Washington unacceptable and warned on GEO TV that “you will lose an ally.”
In his interview with Zakaria on Wednesday, Mullen said “the strategic intent here is to … focus on this like a laser, because it’s been there for a long time and unless the Pakistani leaders take action, it will continue to be there and that support will continue to be there.”
Also Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to joint U.S.-Pakistani efforts to halt Haqqani network attacks in Afghanistan.
“You will see a lot of work taking place as we try to determine how best to confront this mutual threat and it’s important to realize that, while it’s not always easy, the United States and Pakistan have vital strategic interests that converge in the fight against terrorism, and Pakistan faces a very real threat,” Clinton said. “They have suffered far more casualities, civilian and military alike.”
In addition, Clinton said U.S. officials were “in the final formal review” for designating the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization.
At last week’s congressional hearing, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said recent meetings on the issue have involved Mullen with the top Pakistani military officer, as well as CIA Director David Petraeus and Pakistani’s top intelligence officer.
The United States has pushed Pakistan to crack down on the Haqqani network in those talks, Panetta said.
The chairman of the Senate committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, said the ability of the Haqqani network, a Pakistani militant group, to launch attacks over the border from Pakistan was unacceptable.
Levin expressed frustration with the Pakistani government, which has yet to use its troops to crack down on the insurgents. Some legislators have called for cutting aid to Pakistan over the issue.
CNN’s Barbara Starr and Tom Cohen contributed to this report.