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Now thought alive { November 14 2002 }

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November 14, 2002
Bin Laden Hunt Frustrates Pentagon

Filed at 8:35 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Now that Osama bin Laden is thought to be alive and threatening more attacks, the Senate's top Democrat said Thursday the administration's inability to catch the al-Qaida leader raises questions about ``whether or not we are winning the war on terror.''

``We can't find bin Laden. We haven't made real progress'' in finding key elements of al-Qaida, said Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. ``They continue to be as great a threat today as they were one and a half years ago. So by what measure can we claim to be successful so far?''

Asked about it at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ducked the question of whether the United States was winning the war. He also refused to speculate on whether bin Laden was dead or alive in light of the release this week of a threatening audiotape thought to have come from the al-Qaida leader.

``The answer is yes, he is alive or dead,'' Rumsfeld said.

The questions irked White House aides, too, as spokesman Scott McClellan refused to say whether President Bush and his team were frustrated by the failure to find bin Laden.

``Let me put it this way: If Osama bin Laden is alive, we know he's on the run,'' the spokesman said. ``We have dismantled his terrorist network. And we are going to continue tracking down these trained killers and their leaders and their networks wherever they are and bringing these people to justice.''

Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said, ``It seems to me like Senator Daschle's comments are inappropriate and out of order.''

Still, the failure to catch the world's No. 1 terror suspect and other key figures has dogged the Bush administration, other arrests and successes around the world notwithstanding.

Is the United States winning the war against terrorism?

``No, I don't think so,'' said foreign policy analyst Ivan Eland of the Cato Institute.

But, like the administration, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, another think tank, said, ``We are definitely making progress.''

Not in catching up to bin Laden.

Over the past 14 months, U.S.-led forces have been unable to find him despite their billion-dollar high-tech spy equipment, a multimillion-dollar reward, search operations by thousands of troops and hours of questioning prisoners.

The Pentagon is hoping to get new hints following the airing of the audiotape that threatens America and its allies.

Though bin Laden tops the Pentagon's wanted list, defense officials said the war has never been about one person.

Tens of thousands of U.S., British, Canadian, Australian, Danish and other forces have worked in the region around Afghanistan over the past year -- searching by land, air and sea for al-Qaida and former Taliban rulers who scattered in the first few months after the Afghan bombing campaign began in the fall of 2001.

Across patches of Afghanistan, special operations forces from several nations have secretly spied in villages and mountain passes that could be possible hideouts.

Troops have collected and analyzed heaps of documents, computer disks and other evidence left by enemy fighters in caves and underground bunkers. They have monitored satellite images and intercepted radio, telephone and e-mail communications.

Unmanned spy planes equipped with cameras and Predator drones fitted with Hellfire missiles have been used by CIA operatives. In one instance, they killed a tall man gathered with others under a tree. DNA analysis of his remains later showed that it was not the 6-foot-4 bin Laden.

And an international naval task force has monitored thousands of seafaring vessels in hopes of catching al-Qaida fleeing by water.

In Afghanistan, officials have been saying for months that bin Laden is hiding in neighboring Pakistan's tribal border region, accessible by hundreds of foot paths that wind through the area's rugged peaks.

U.S. Special Forces joined Pakistani troops more than six months ago in an attempt to flush out al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives, angering the tribesmen who continue to back the Taliban and bin Laden's organization despite the Pakistani government's joining Washington's side in the war.

Anyone who might know where bin Laden is apparently isn't saying, despite promises of big money. The United States has offered a $25 million reward for information to help capture him.

Less than half of some 30 al-Qaida leaders have been captured or killed during the war, though the routing of the network from Afghanistan has put the terrorists on the run and made it harder to operate, officials say. Arrests, the clamping down on terrorist finances and other efforts have foiled some planned attacks, officials said, though there was a resurgence of attacks around the world last month.

As for bin Laden, some intelligence officials say the best chance to catch him was lost last December, when he was believed hiding at his Tora Bora stronghold during U.S.-led airstrikes but escaped because too few American troops were committed to the hunt

Rumsfeld has denied such an error was made and said in April that despite numerous tips, rumors and other intelligence, the U.S. military simply had never had the ``actionable intelligence'' -- enough good and timely information on bin Laden's whereabouts -- to mount a mission to go after him.

Officials said that remains true.

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