Pakistan's lobbyists launch D.C. charm offensive

President Obama meets Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 14, 2011.

WASHINGTON - Within hours of the stunning announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. commandos, a lobbying firm representing Pakistan's government began contacting members of Congress and their staffs to counter claims Islamabad protected the al Qaeda chief for nearly six years.

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The push by Locke Lord Strategies to turn the tide against criticism of Pakistan — and preserve the country's billions of dollars in U.S. aid — illustrates one of Washington's enduring realities: No matter the issue or the crisis, lobbyists are working behind the scenes to shape opinions on Capitol Hill.

At stake is the continued flow of U.S. economic aid and military support to Pakistan, America's iffy partner in the fight against terrorism and religious extremism. Congress is not expected to shut off the nearly $3 billion in assistance planned for 2012. Despite deep misgivings, the U.S. does not want to allow Pakistan to become unstable and risk having its nuclear arsenal fall into the hands of Islamic radicals.

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But bin Laden's nearly six-year stay at a compound in a military garrison town outside Pakistan's capital has left Locke Lord's lobbying team with plenty of explaining to do.

The relationship between the two countries was badly strained even before a team of Navy SEALs stormed bin Laden's home Monday, local time. His body was buried at sea just hours later. Republicans and Democrats are angry that bin Laden found a safe harbor in Pakistan and want a painstaking review of how the money that goes there is spent.

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CIA Director Leon Panetta stoked emotions on Capitol Hill earlier this week, telling lawmakers during a closed-door briefing: "Pakistan was involved or incompetent."

Since 2002, Pakistan has received more than $20 billion from the U.S., making the country one of the largest U.S. aid recipients, according to the Congressional Research Service. Nearly $9 billion of that has been in the form of reimbursements for Pakistan's costs to support the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

Mark Siegel, a Locke Lord partner, would not identify which congressional offices he and the other five lobbyists working the Pakistan account are calling and visiting. Records filed with Congress and the Justice Department show Locke Lord has represented Pakistan since May 2008 and has been paid just over $2.7 million. Pakistan is the firm's biggest client.

Siegel is a former assistant to the president in the Carter White House and was chief of staff to Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., from 2001 to 2004. Other Locke Lord lobbyists working the Pakistan account also have congressional experience. Phil Rivers is a former chief of staff to Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a Senate Appropriations Committee member. Brian Heindl was a top aide to Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., also a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In an interview, Siegel said there is no evidence that President Asif Ali Zardari's civilian government knew of bin Laden's whereabouts. Cutting aid and military support to Pakistan would only weaken the relationship between Washington and Islamabad, leaving Pakistan less able to combat terrorism, he said.