The Pakistani army denied Wednesday that one of its majors was among the Pakistanis who Western officials say were arrested for feeding the CIA information before the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The New York Times, which first reported the arrests of five Pakistani informants, said one of them was an army major who copied licence plates of cars visiting the al-Qaeda chief's compound in Pakistan in the weeks before the raid.
A Western official in Pakistan confirmed that five Pakistanis who fed information to the CIA before the May 2 operation were arrested by Pakistan's top intelligence service.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates did not directly confirm the reports Wednesday but called the alleged arrests a "harsh reality."
In response to questions at a Capitol Hill hearing, Gates said, most governments lie to each other," sometimes they arrest people, and sometimes they spy on us. He said it's the "real world we deal with."
Neither Pakistan's army nor the country's spy agency would confirm or deny the overall report about the detentions.
But Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas denied an army major was arrested, saying the report was "false and totally baseless."
The group of detained Pakistanis included the owner of a safe house rented to the CIA to observe bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, an army town not far from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, a U.S. official said. The owner was detained along with a "handful" of other Pakistanis, said the official.
The Western officials said they could speak only on condition of anonymity because it was a sensitive intelligence matter.
CIA head raises issue of arrests
The fate of the purported CIA informants who were arrested was unclear, but U.S. officials told the Times that CIA director Leon Panetta raised the issue when he visited Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, last week to meet with Pakistani military and intelligence officers.
U.S.-Pakistani relations have been strained over the raid by Navy SEALs on Pakistani territory, which embarrassed Pakistan's military, and other issues.
Officials said the arrests of the informants were just the latest evidence of the fractured relationship between the two nations.
The Times said that at a closed briefing last week, members of the Senate intelligence committee asked Michael Morell, the deputy CIA director, to rate Pakistan's co-operation with the United States on counterterrorism operations, on a scale of one to 10.
"Three," Morell replied, according to officials familiar with the exchange, the newspaper said.
U.S. officials speaking to the Times cautioned that Morell's comment was a snapshot of the current relationship and did not represent the Obama administration's overall assessment.
"We have a strong relationship with our Pakistani counterparts and work through issues when they arise," Marie Harf, a CIA spokeswoman, told the newspaper. "Director Panetta had productive meetings last week in Islamabad. It's a crucial partnership, and we will continue to work together in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups who threaten our country and theirs."
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, said in an interview with the Times that the CIA and the Pakistani spy agency "are working out mutually agreeable terms for their co-operation in fighting the menace of terrorism. It is not appropriate for us to get into the details at this stage."