An incorrect date appeared in an earlier version of this article about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The article should have said that several officers confirmed that the number of special operations troops in Afghanistan was reduced in March 2002.
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Bin Laden Trail 'Stone Cold'
"We believe that he held to a pretty narrow range of within 15 kilometers of the border," said Vines, who now commands the XVIII Airborne Corps, "so that if the Pakistanis, for whatever reason, chose to do something to him, he could cross into Afghanistan and vice versa."
He said he thinks bin Laden's protection force "had a series of outposts with radios that could alert each other" if helicopters were coming or other troop movements were evident.
Pakistani military officials in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, described bin Laden as having three rings of security, each ring unaware of the movements and identities of the other. Sometimes they communicated with specially marked flashlights. Sometimes they dressed as women to avoid detection by U.S. spy planes.
Pakistan will permit only small numbers of U.S. forces to operate with its troops at times and, because their role is so sensitive politically, it officially denies any U.S. presence. A frequent complaint from U.S. troops is that they have too little to do. The same complaint is also heard from U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where there were few targets to go after.
Although the hunt for bin Laden has depended to a large extent on technology, until recently unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were in short supply, especially when the war in Iraq became a priority in 2003.
In July 2003, Vines said that U.S. forces under his command thought they were close to striking bin Laden, but had only one drone to send over three possible routes he might take. "A UAV was positioned on the route that was most likely, but he didn't go that way," Vines said. "We believed that we were within a half-hour of possibly getting him, but nothing materialized."
Faced with the most sophisticated technology in the world, bin Laden has gone decidedly low-tech. His 23 video or audiotapes in the last five years are thought to have been hand-carried to news outlets or nearby mail drops by a series of couriers who know nothing about the contents of their deliveries or the real identity of the sender, a simple method used by spies and drug traffickers for centuries.
"They are really good at operational security," said Ben Venzke, chief executive officer of IntelCenter, a private company that analyzes terrorist information and has obtained, analyzed and published all bin Laden's communiques. "They are very good at having enough cut-outs" to move videos into circulation without detection. "It's some of the simplest things to do."
Uncertain Command Structure
Bureaucratic battles slowed down the hunt for bin Laden for the first two or three years, according to officials in several agencies, with both the Pentagon and the CIA accusing each other of withholding information. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's sense of territoriality has become legendary, according to these officials.
In early November 2002, for example, a CIA drone armed with a Hellfire missile killed a top al-Qaeda leader traveling through the Yemeni desert. About a week later, Rumsfeld expressed anger that it was the CIA, not the Defense Department, that had carried out the successful strike.
"How did they get the intel?" he demanded of the intelligence and other military personnel in a high-level meeting, recalled one person knowledgeable about the meeting.
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then director of the National Security Agency and technically part of the Defense Department, said he had given it to them.