Officials: Bin Laden trail's gone 'stone cold'
The CIA has recently increased the number of assets and officers to find bin Laden.
WASHINGTON -- The clandestine U.S. commandos whose job is to capture or kill Osama bin Laden have not received a credible lead in more than two years. Nothing from the vast U.S. intelligence world -- no tips from informants, no snippets from electronic intercepts, no points on any satellite image -- has led them anywhere near the al-Qaida leader, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.
"The handful of assets we have have given us nothing close to real-time intelligence" that could have led to his capture, said one counterterrorism official, who said the trail, despite the most extensive manhunt in U.S. history, has gone "stone cold."
But in the last three months, after a request from President Bush to "flood the zone," the CIA has sharply increased the number of intelligence officers and assets devoted to the pursuit of bin Laden. The intelligence officers will team with the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and with more resources from the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies.
Here's what's wrong
The problem, former and current counterterrorism officials say, is that no one is certain where the "zone" is.
"Here you've got a guy who's gone off the net and is hiding in some of the most formidable terrain in one of the most remote parts of the world surrounded by people he trusts implicitly," said T. McCreary, spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center.
Intelligence officials think that bin Laden is hiding in the northern reaches of the autonomous tribal region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This calculation is based largely on a lack of activity elsewhere and on other intelligence, including a videotape, obtained exclusively by the CIA and not previously reported, that shows bin Laden walking on a trail toward Pakistan at the end of the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, when U.S. forces came close but failed to capture him.
Many factors have combined in the five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to make the pursuit more difficult. They include the lack of CIA access to people close to al-Qaida's inner circle; Pakistan's unwillingness to pursue him; the re-emergence of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan; the strength of the Iraqi insurgency, which has depleted U.S. military and intelligence resources; and the U.S. government's own disorganization.
After playing down bin Laden's importance and barely mentioning him for several years, Bush last week repeatedly invoked his name and quoted from his writings and speeches to underscore what Bush said is the continuing threat of terrorism.
What experts say
Many terrorism experts, however, say the importance of finding bin Laden has diminished since Bush first pledged to capture him "dead or alive" in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Terrorists worldwide have repeatedly shown they no longer need him to organize or carry out attacks, the experts say. Attacks in Europe, Asia and the Middle East were perpetrated by homegrown terrorists unaffiliated with al-Qaida.
Despite a lack of progress, at CIA headquarters bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are still the most wanted of the High Value Targets, referred to as "HVT 1 and 2." The CIA station in Kabul still offers a briefing to VIP visitors that declares: "We are here for the hunt!" -- a reminder that finding bin Laden is a top priority.
Bureaucratic battles slowed down the hunt for bin Laden for the first two or three years, according to officials in several agencies.