Will Bin Laden Be Caught? US Officials Disagree

(Jan. 5, 2010) — Nearly a year into the presidency of Barack Obama, the world’s most wanted man remains at large. Is the U.S. any closer to finding Osama bin Laden? Will he ever be captured? The questions seem simple, but the answers depend on whom in the Obama administration you ask. 

The issue of bin Laden’s whereabouts has come up repeatedly in recent weeks, as the American military escalates its war in Afghanistan and the White House scrambles to respond to what the president called a “systemic” security failure. Yet the bin Laden questions have flummoxed the Obama administration, which, like its predecessor, has teetered between downplaying both the likelihood and importance of capturing bin Laden on one hand and vowing to kill him on the other. 

In the past month alone, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it has been “years” since the U.S. has had good intelligence on the al-Qaida leader, while the senior White House adviser for counterterrorism, John Brennan, just weeks later said the U.S. gets “closer” every day to capturing bin Laden. 

Here’s a timeline of how Obama and his top aides have characterized the hunt for bin Laden.

Oct. 7, 2008: ‘We Will Kill Him’
As a candidate, Obama assailed the Bush administration for allowing bin Laden to escape its grasp and for invading Iraq while the top target was still hiding out along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. During a debate with Sen. John McCain, then-Sen. Obama made a clear pledge: “We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida,” he said. “That has to be our biggest national security priority.” 

Jan. 14, 2009: A ‘Preference’

Before he even took office, Obama had lost the urgent desire to “kill bin Laden” that he voiced three months earlier. He told Katie Couric in a CBS News interview that while his “preference” was to kill or capture the al-Qaida chief, it wasn’t all that necessary. “We have to so weaken his infrastructure so that whether he is technically alive or not, he is so pinned down that he cannot function,” Obama said. “My preference obviously would be to capture or kill him. But if we have so tightened the noose that he is in a cave somewhere and can’t even communicate with his operatives, then we will meet our goal of protecting America.”

Dec. 1, 2009: Bin Laden Who? 
Fast-forward 11 months, when the president delivered an eagerly anticipated speech at West Point in which he announced and explained his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. In a 34-minute address, Obama outlined a mission “to disrupt, dismantle and destroy” al-Qaida, but he mentioned bin Laden by name only once, in passing, and did not repeat his campaign vow to kill him.

Dec. 6, 2009: How Close Are We Exactly?
Five days after Obama’s speech, his top advisers and Cabinet officials appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the Afghanistan plan. On the question of bin Laden, the responses varied. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that while it was “important” to capture or kill bin Laden, “you can make enormous progress absent that.” Defense Secretary Gates offered little hope for a quick capture. “We don’t know for a fact where Osama bin Laden is,” Gates said on ABC. “If we did, we’d go get him.” Asked when was the last time the U.S. had good intelligence on bin Laden, he replied: “I think it has been years.” 

On CNN, National Security Adviser James Jones said the government believed bin Laden was in the rough, ungoverned mountainous region of North Waziristan, “sometimes on the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes on the Afghan side of the border.” Jones offered yet another formulation of what the American goal was regarding the al-Qaida leader, saying that the U.S. had to make sure he is “on the run or captured or killed.”

Dec. 9, 2009: Afghan Commander’s View

In testimony before Congress, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, made the administration’s most definitive statement in months about the priority of capturing bin Laden. Calling bin Laden an “iconic figure … whose survival emboldens al-Qaida,” the general said his capture or death was required to complete the mission of defeating the terror network. “It would not defeat al-Qaida to have him captured or killed, but I don’t think that we can finally defeat al-Qaida until he’s captured or killed,” McChrystal said.

Dec. 11, 2009: An ‘Intensified’ Hunt
While McChrystal was characterizing bin Laden’s capture as essential, the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, was downplaying its importance in an interview with Bloomberg’s Al Hunt. “Eliminating Osama bin Laden eliminates the head of this odious organization,” Holbrooke said, “but the problem would continue, and let’s not overly focus on a single man although the pursuit of him has intensified after a long period of relative neglect.” Asked if the chances of capturing bin Laden had increased, Holbrooke said: “I don’t know. Nobody knows.”

Jan. 3, 2010: Determination Re-emerges

The New Year brought the Obama administration full circle on the bin Laden question. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan came the closest to repeating Obama’s campaign pledge from more than a year earlier. “We’re going to continue to hunt him down. Ultimately, we’re going to get him. We’re going to get bin Laden, we’re going to get Zawahiri, we’re going to get the others,” Brennan said, though he did not cite reasons for the administration’s newfound optimism. “It’s going to happen with bin Laden,” he repeated. “Every day we get one day closer, and hopefully it’s going to be very soon.”

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