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Elite unites hunt { September 3 2002 }

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September 3, 2002
Commanders Want Elite Units Freed From Qaeda Hunt

WASHINGTON, Sept. 2 — Commanders in the American military's most elite Special Operations unit are contending that their troops should be freed from the fruitless hunt in Afghanistan for Osama bin Laden, military and intelligence officials say.

Some senior officers in the Joint Special Operations Command have concluded that Mr. bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, was probably killed in the American bombing raid at Tora Bora last December, officials said. They concluded that he died in a bombing raid on one of several caves that had been a target because American intelligence officials believed they housed Qaeda leaders.

Yet the Special Operations leaders lack hard forensic evidence that would prove Mr. bin Laden is dead, and acknowledge their conclusions are deductive, drawn partly from the lack of recent confirmed sightings or radio intercepts indicating he is still alive, officials say.

Other military and intelligence officials have sharply disagreed with their assessment, and the analysis by some commanders of the Joint Special Operations Command does not represent a consensus of all Special Operations forces leaders, military officials said.

The analysis concerning Mr. bin Laden's fate plays into a deepening debate under way among Special Operations leaders about how best to use the military's super-secret counterterrorism forces.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is pushing for an expanded use of Special Operations forces units beyond Afghanistan to kill or capture terrorists. As a result, Special Operations leaders are trying to determine whether the hunt for the elusive Qaeda leader is still the best use of the limited resources of the most elite units.

At least publicly, President Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld have said they do not know whether Mr. bin Laden is alive or dead. Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the American military effort in Afghanistan, said last week that he had not seen "convincing proof" that Mr. bin Laden had been killed. But General Franks added that he did not know Mr. bin Laden's fate.

American intelligence agencies have received reports from people on the ground in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region claiming to have information that Mr. bin Laden is alive.

Still, the assessment suggesting he is dead comes from the commanders of the elite military units responsible for counterterrorism, which have been on the front lines of the hunt for Mr. bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan. They are so respected that senior intelligence and law enforcement officials elsewhere have been briefed on the assessment, leading to more debate on whether Mr. bin Laden is dead or alive.

Despite the debate within the Special Operations ranks over Mr. bin Laden, American and allied ground troops — including the elite commandos — continue to scour Afghanistan, searching for pockets of Qaeda fighters and clues about Mr. bin Laden. Barring conclusive evidence that Mr. bin laden is dead, the military's default position is to assume he is still alive and to keep hunting for him. Yet Special Operations forces are increasingly frustrated by how little they have to show for their efforts.

In the late spring or early summer, a meeting of Special Operations leaders was held to discuss how to allocate Special Operations resources, officials said. At that meeting, some senior commanders told their colleagues that they believed Mr. bin Laden was dead, officials familiar with the meeting said.

"There are a lot of people — though it's not an official position — who think he's gone, way gone," said one senior military officer.

The meeting's focus pivoted to implications of that assessment, the officer said. "It was a discussion of what requires us to stay there in Afghanistan," the officer said. "If Osama bin Laden is presumed dead, then it would reduce the pressure to keep the forces in Afghanistan."

Spokesmen for Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the two men had not been briefed on the discussion, suggesting that the commanders' assessment was not a formal written intelligence report that was handed up the chain of command.

Still, officials at other intelligence agencies said they were familiar with the assessment that Mr. bin Laden was dead, indicating that the unit's views have circulated widely among the government's counterterrorism experts. But Special Operations leaders remain divided on the issue, officials said.

"There have been no formal intelligence assessments suggesting definitive conclusions concerning bin Laden within the Special Operations forces community," said a military spokesman. "However, there are some members of the intelligence community within S.O.F. who have asserted independently in formal settings that it is their personal belief bin Laden was killed at Tora Bora.

"The individuals making this case claim no more than that their conclusions are deductive and they have offered no definitive proof," the military spokesman said. "Others contradict them with their own assertions that he is probably still in rural Pakistan. Bottom line: no concrete conclusions guided by rule of thumb in the intelligence business which is, until you can produce the body, you can't make the claim."

The Joint Special Operations Command, based at Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, is responsible for conducting the military's most sensitive counterterrorism missions. The unit is so secretive that the Army refused to release the résumé of its commander, Maj. Gen. Del Dailey.

Within the command, two highly secretive, relatively small groups are designated for counterterrorism missions: the Army Special Operations unit known as Delta Force, and the Naval Special Warfare unit, often called Seal Team 6, senior military officials said.

The Joint Special Operations Command is subordinate to the larger United States Special Operations Command, based in Tampa, Fla. In Afghanistan, the Special Operations forces have worked closely with paramilitary officers from the Central Intelligence Agency's Special Activities Division.

Now, as President Bush weighs whether to attack Iraq, and Mr. Rumsfeld is seeking an expanded worldwide role for Special Operations forces, a number of Special Operations commanders say their scarce elite forces could be employed more effectively if sent on other sensitive missions, military officials said.

"The issue is, what are your options, and how many places do you stay engaged and committed?" said one senior military officer. "If the assumption is bin Laden is dead, then maybe you don't need those assets in Afghanistan anymore."

In the global campaign against terrorism, the military's Special Operations units are already stretched thin. Officials say that fewer than 1,000 commandos are part of frontline counterterrorism teams, out of total combat Special Operations troops of between 7,000 and 8,000, which includes Army Rangers, other Seal teams, and Air Force Special Operations units. Overall, the military has about 46,000 personnel in Special Operations forces, including those involved in civil affairs and other nondirect action roles.

But it takes years to recruit and train members of the elite counterterrorism units, and their numbers have clearly not grown as rapidly as the number of jobs they may soon be called upon to accomplish.

Should President Bush decide to invade Iraq, for instance, Delta Force and Seal Team 6 would probably be asked to perform another one of their specialized missions — counterproliferation. They would be assigned to help hunt down and destroy Iraq's suspected arsenal of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and the missiles to launch them.

Despite the desire by some Special Operations officials to move on to new assignments, others in American intelligence agencies, the military and law enforcement remain uncertain about Mr. bin Laden's fate.

"I would bet my paycheck, but not my mortgage, that he is still alive," said one senior American official.

Intelligence officials acknowledge that they have no hard evidence that Mr. bin Laden escaped Tora Bora. American intelligence agencies have not obtained any intercepted communications indicating that Mr. bin Laden is alive since the assault on Tora Bora. In mid-December, the United States intercepted a radio transmission on which analysts believe they could hear Mr. bin Laden giving orders to Qaeda fighters. He has been silent ever since.

American intelligence agencies have received reports from people on the ground in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region who have claimed that they have information that Mr. bin Laden escaped Tora Bora and made his way into Pakistan. These reports are not conclusive, but are numerous enough to convince some officials that he did escape Tora Bora.

American intelligence officials also say they believe that if Mr. bin Laden was dead, other Qaeda leaders, as well as Mr. bin Laden's family, would behave differently than they appear to be acting today. "If he is dead, very few people in Al Qaeda know it," said one official.

Mr. Rumsfeld says that he has no idea whether Mr. bin Laden is alive or dead. "He's either alive and in Afghanistan or somewhere else, or he's dead," Mr. Rumsfeld said last month.

But in July, Dale Watson, the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism chief, became the first senior government official to say publicly that he believed Mr. bin Laden was dead. Mr. Watson said that he did not have hard evidence to support his opinion. It is unclear whether he had heard about the commanders' assessment before making his statement.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Permissions | Privacy Policy

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