By MATTHEW COLE
The government of Pakistan offered to trade a CIA contractor currently jailed in that country for a Pakistani neuroscientist suspected by U.S. intelligence to be an al Qaeda operative.
According to a senior American administration official and a Pakistani official involved in the negotiations to free CIA contractor Raymond Davis, the Pakistani government proposed trading Davis for Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT-educated Pakistani neuroscientist currently serving 86 years in federal prison for attempted murder.
The offer was immediately dismissed by the U.S. government. "The Pakistanis have raised it," the U.S. official said. "We are not going to pursue it."
The proposal is the latest in a series of efforts to break an impasse between Washington and Islamabad over Davis. The CIA contractor has been held by Pakistani authorities since late January for shooting and killing two men he says were following his car and tried to rob him.
Siddiqui was convicted of trying to shoot F.B.I. agents and military officers in an Afghanistan police station in 2008. Siddiqui had been arrested the day before after being found with a list of New York city landmarks and instructions on how to construct explosives.
In 2004, F.B.I. director Robert Mueller described Siddiqui as an "al Qaeda operative and facilitator." The F.B.I. had issued a global alert for Siddiqui and her first husband in 2003, for their suspected ties to al Qaeda. Siddiqui later remarried to an al Qaeda operative, who was the nephew of the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed. The husband, Ammar al-Baluchi is currently being detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Siddiqui was never charged with any terrorism-related crimes, however. Shortly after the FBI alert, she and her children disappeared, only to surface in Afghanistan five years later. Siddiqui has claimed she was held in secret American prisons, including Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, during that time. American officials have consistently denied that she was ever in American custody.
Official: Raymond Davis Trade Offer Not Considered by White House
According to the Pakistani official, the Pakistan's government proposal called for Siddiqui to be transferred to Pakistan, where she would serve the remainder of her sentence in a Pakistani jail or under house arrest.
Siddiqui's case became a cause celebre in Pakistan last year when Pakistan's prime minister called for Siddiqui's exoneration and release.
Popular Pakistani sentiment held that Siddiqui, who also had a Ph.D. from Brandeis University, had been persecuted by the U.S. because she was an educated Islamist woman, someone who spurned the West despite her background.
According to the senior administration official and a Pakistani official, the U.S. government quickly made it clear to Pakistan that they would not entertain the possibility of trading Siddiqui for Davis.
The American official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record about the negotiation, said the offer was not being considered by the Obama White House.
The Pakistani official directly involved in the negotiations agreed, saying their Siddiqui proposal was a "non-starter" for the U.S. government.
Since the impasse began in the days after the January 27th shooting in Lahore, that ultimately led to the deaths of three Pakistani citizens, both sides have alternated between hard and soft approaches to end the diplomatic stand off.
U.S. and Pakistani officials told ABC News that early on, the White House threatened to close the three U.S. consulates and expel the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. if Davis wasn't released. Pakistan's ambassador, Husain Haqqani, has denied that the White House made those threats.
The Associated Press reported last week that the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, has stopped speaking with the CIA over the Davis case and its perception that the Americans have been heavy-handed in their efforts to get Davis released. Citing a senior ISI official, the report described the relationship between the ISI and CIA as at the lowest point since 9/11. The U.S.-Pakistani relationship is considered crucial to ending the war in Afghanistan.
Pakistani Officials: It's a 'Matter of Time' Before Davis Is Released
On Friday, Davis refused to sign a charge sheet during a pre-trial hearing, telling the court he has been advised that he has diplomatic immunity.
But there is still hope for a resolution despite the apparent impasse. Pakistani officials in both Lahore and Islamabad have told ABC News that Davis' release is a "matter of time," and that the Pakistani government is waiting for the public furor over the case to wane before releasing the American.
One Pakistani official said that one likely outcome would be that the U.S. government would pay reparations to the victims' families, who under Pakistan law can pardon Davis if asked.