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updated 6/15/2011 2:57:11 PM ET 2011-06-15T18:57:11

A key al-Qaida operative returned to Pakistan by the CIA after he gave the U.S. information that eventually led to the location of Osama bin Laden has since rejoined al-Qaida, U.S. officials say.

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The agency returned Hassan Ghul to Pakistan not long after the CIA closed its remaining secret prisons in Eastern Europe in 2006.

The CIA had been given assurances that Ghul, a native of Pakistan, would not go free. But Pakistan failed to keep its word. Ghul was let go and later rejoined al-Qaida, angering the CIA officers who worked so hard to take him off the battlefield, according to former and current U.S. intelligence officials.

Story: Pakistan arrests C.I.A. informants in bin Laden raid

Pakistan's decision to free Ghul is yet another troubling revelation at a time when the U.S. is rethinking its relationship with Pakistan and whether it can be a trusted ally in fighting terrorism. Members of Congress have talked about ending aid to Pakistan after bin Laden was found inside Pakistan, hiding out in an urban area not far from a military garrison. Last week, CIA Director Leon Panetta confronted Pakistan's intelligence service about tipping off militants running bomb factories aimed at killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Ghul's return to Pakistan also raises questions about how the Bush administration, which was committed to keeping arguably less dangerous detainees locked up at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could hand over the man who provided the key information about bin Laden's trusted courier, intelligence that in May led to bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. commandos.

The move frustrated former CIA officers, who at the time believed Ghul should have been moved to Guantanamo along with 14 other high-value detainees like Abu Zubaydah, a major al-Qaida facilitator, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

A U.S. official said Pakistan made promises that it would hold Ghul, only to let him go and re-establish contact with al-Qaida. A senior Pakistani intelligence official said he had no information about Ghul.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because details about Ghul's case remain classified.

Former CIA officials say Ghul was part of Zubaydah's clandestine network of moneymen and couriers. He was well-known to the CIA before the 9/11 attacks. The CIA had been pressing Pakistan to arrest Ghul for years and later learned after 9/11 he had been hiding at safe houses in the Lahore area belonging to the terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was behind the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India.

But Pakistan's spy service, the ISI, refused to pick up Ghul.

When the CIA figured out that Ghul was traveling to meet with al-Qaida operatives who had gone to Iraq after the 2003 invasion to fight the U.S., the agency decided to act. In a joint operation with the Kurds, Ghul was nabbed in northern Iraq in January 2004, former CIA officials said. Pakistan was furious when it learned the CIA had Ghul and pressed the U.S. to return him.

Instead, Ghul was taken to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan but was later removed over questions about whether the transfer was legal, former CIA officials said. Ghul then was taken to a CIA "black site" — a secret prison — in Eastern Europe and provided crucial information about bin Laden's most trusted courier before he was exposed to harsh interrogation techniques. Ghul's information later allowed the CIA to realize that finding the courier probably would lead to bin Laden.

Ghul also provided key information about the whereabouts of terrorists in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, the officials said. He provided other precise information as well.

"He was very useful," a former CIA officer said.

Former CIA officials said in the rush to close the secret prisons, the U.S. was looking for ways to get rid of some of the remaining two dozen or so detainees in the agency's now-defunct interrogation and detention program. With Pakistan offering to take Ghul, U.S. officials figured they could also build some good will by giving him back, and the CIA had the ISI's pledge that he wouldn't go free.

It's not clear why Pakistan wanted Ghul back so badly, but former CIA officers who targeted Ghul said he had ties to the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group, which had the backing of ISI.

Little is known about Ghul's movements after he was sent back to Pakistan. At an undisclosed location in Pakistan, Ghul talked with a British detainee named Rangzieb Ahmed who was held in an adjacent cell. Ghul told Ahmed that he had been held in a secret CIA location for 2 1/2 years and had also passed through Morocco.

Ahmed said the last time he saw Ghul was in January 2007.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Pakistan arrests CIA's bin Laden informants

  1. Closed captioning of: Pakistan arrests CIA's bin Laden informants

    >>> is yet another twist to report tonight involving bin laden 's death, it's once again creating a lot of tension in the relationship, already troubled between pakistan and the u.s. for that, we go to our chief foreign affairs correspondent andrea mitchell .

    >> good evening, brian. pakistan 's powerful military has now erected five cia informants including an army major who helped track down bin laden . this is despite the fact that a parade of top u.s. officials have been going to islamabad. all pleading with islamabad and reading the riot act to them really for failing to cooperate against terrorists. they also say that pakistan 's terrorists are costing american lives. this is because that ieds are made in pakistan , panetta even showed the pakistanis satellite photos of these bomb facilities in pakistan , demanded that they be raided, two days later, somebody must have tipped them off. and the terrorists fled.

    >> andrea mitchell in our washington bureau tonight regarding this relationship.

Photos: The compound

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  1. Pakistani boys while demolition takes place on the compound where Osama bin Laden was slain in 2011 in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012.

    More photos from Abbottabad one year after Osama bin Laden (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial view shows the residential area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. commandos. (Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A general view of the town of Abbottabad, May 6. Bin Laden was living in a large house close to a military academy in this garrison town, a two-and-a-half hour-drive from the capital, Islamabad. (Khaqan Khawer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami rally to condemn the killing of bin Laden, in Abbottabad on May 6. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Pakistani woman photographs her daughter on May , at a gate of the compound where bin Laden was caught and killed. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. School girls pass by armed Pakistani policemen guarding the sealed entrance to the compound in Abbottabad, May 5, in which bin Laden had been living. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Part of a damaged helicopter rests in the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed bin Laden, May 2, in a photo made available on May 4. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Boys herd sheep past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5. (Akhtar Soomro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pakistani security officials arrive at the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad on Wednesday, May 4. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Local residents gather outside a burned section of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Pakistani police officer gestures at a checkpoint along a road leading to a house where bin Laden was captured and killed in Abbottabad. Area residents were still confused and suspicious about bin Laden's death, which took place before dawn on Monday. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pakistani children look out from a high vantage point at bin Laden's compound on Tuesday, May 3. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pakistan army troops remove canvas screens from outside the compound's house. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Neighbors and news media gather around the compound, right, after authorities ease security around the property. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A satellite image, taken June 15, 2005, shows the Abbottabad compound, center, where bin Laden was killed in on Monday. (DigitalGlobe via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Pakistani soldier secures the compound. (T. Mughal / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The compound is seen in flames after it was attacked early May 2 in this still image taken from cellphone video footage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Part of a damaged U.S. MH-60 helicopter lies the compound. The helicopter was destroyed by U.S. forces after a mechanical failure left it unable to take off. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A still image from video obtained by ABC News shows blood stains in the interior of the house where bin Laden was killed. (ABC News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Aerial views released by the Department of Defense show the area in Abbottabad in 2004, left, before the house was built, and in 2011, right. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A graphic released by the Department of Defense shows the compound where bin Laden was killed. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pakistani soldiers and police officers patrol near the house, background, where bin Laden had lived. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The hideout of bin Laden is seen the day after his death. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Students look toward the compound from a nearby religious school in Abbottabad. (Faisal Mahmood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pakistani security officials survey the walls of the compound where bin Laden was killed. The outer walls were between 10 and 18 feet high. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the compound May 2. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Boys collect pieces of metal from a wheat field outside bin Laden's house, seen in the background, on May 3. People showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that the U.S. says malfunctioned and was blown up by the American team as it retreated. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pakistani security officials stand guard at the main entrance to the compound on May 3. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. An image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and released by the U.S. Department of Defense, shows Osama bin Laden watching TV. He is said to have spent his last weeks in a house divided, amid wives riven by suspicions. On the top floor, sharing his bedroom, was his youngest wife and favorite. The trouble came when his eldest wife showed up and moved into the bedroom on the floor below. (Department of Defense via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (29) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - The compound
  2. Image:
    Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (81) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - World reaction
  3. Image:
    Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (81) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - World reaction
  4. Image:
    Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (29) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - The compound

Timeline: A timeline of Osama bin Laden's life

Considered enemy No. 1 by the U.S., the Saudi millionaire is the perpetrator behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Click on key dates to learn more about the founder of al-Qaida, an international terror network.

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