Correction to This Article
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.
Page 5 of 5   <      

Bin Laden Trail 'Stone Cold'

U.S. soldiers leave for a forward military base in Naray in northern Afghanistan as the search for Osama bin Laden goes on.
U.S. soldiers leave for a forward military base in Naray in northern Afghanistan as the search for Osama bin Laden goes on. (By B.k. Bangash -- Associated Press)

"Why aren't you giving it to us?" Rumsfeld wanted to know.

Hayden, according to this source, told Rumsfeld that the information-sharing mechanism with the CIA was working well. Rumsfeld said it would have to stop.

A CIA spokesman said Hayden, now the CIA director, does not recall this conversation. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, "The notion that the department would do anything that would jeopardize the success of an operation to kill or capture bin Laden is ridiculous." The NSA continues to share intelligence with the CIA and the Defense Department.

At that time, Rumsfeld was putting in place his own aggressive plan, led by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), to dominate the hunt for bin Laden and other terrorists. The overall special operations budget has grown by 60 percent since 2003 to $8 billion in fiscal year 2007.

Rows and rows of temporary buildings sprang up on SOCOM's parking lots in Tampa as Rumsfeld refocused the mission of a small group of counterterrorism experts from long-term planning for the war on terrorism to manhunting. The group "went from 20 years to 24-hour crisis-mode operations," one former special operations officer said. "It went from planning to manhunting."

In 2004, Rumsfeld finally won the president's approval to put SOCOM in charge of the "Global War on Terrorism."

Today, however, no one person is in charge of the overall hunt for bin Laden with the authority to direct covert CIA operations to collect intelligence and to dispatch JSOC units. Some counterterrorism officials find this absurd. "There's nobody in the United States government whose job it is to find Osama bin Laden!" one frustrated counterterrorism official shouted. "Nobody!"

"We work by consensus," explained Brig. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., who recently stepped down as deputy director of counterterrorism under the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "In order to find Osama bin Laden, certain departments will come together. . . . It's not that effective, or we'd find the guy, but in terms of advancing United States power for that mission, I think that process is effective."

But Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the JSOC commander since 2003, has become the de facto leader of the hunt for bin Laden and developed a good working relationship with the CIA to the extent that he recently was able to persuade the former station chief in Kabul to become his special assistant. He asks for targets from the CIA, and it tries to comply. "We serve the military," one intelligence officer said.

McChrystal's troops have shuttled between Afghanistan and Iraq, where they succeeded in killing al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and killed or captured dozens of his followers.

Under McChrystal, JSOC has improved its ability to quickly turn captured documents, computers and cellphones into leads and then to act upon them, while waiting for more analysis from CIA or SOCOM.

Industry experts and military officers say they are being aided by computer forensic field kits that let technicians retrieve information from surviving hard drives, cellphones and other electronic devices, as was the case in the Zarqawi strike.

McChrystal, who has commanded JSOC since 2003, now has the authority to go after bin Laden inside Pakistan without having to seek permission first, two U.S. officials said.

"The authority," one knowledgeable person said, "follows the target," meaning that if the target is bin Laden, the stakes are high enough for McChrystal to decide any action on his own. The understanding is that U.S. units will not enter Pakistan, except under extreme circumstances, and that Pakistan will deny giving them permission.

Such was the case in early January, when JSOC troops clandestinely entered the village of Saidgai, two officials familiar with the operation said, and Pakistan protested.

A week later, acting on what Pakistani intelligence officials said was information developed out of Libbi's interrogation, the CIA ordered a missile strike against a house in the village of Damadola, about 120 miles northwest of Islamabad, where Pakistani and American officials thought Zawahiri to be hiding.

The missile killed 13 civilians and several suspected terrorists. But Zawahiri was not among them. The strike "could have changed the destiny of the war on terror. Zawahiri was 100 percent sure to visit Damadola . . . but he disappeared at the last moment," one Pakistani intelligence official said.

Tens of thousands of Pakistanis staged an angry anti-American protest near Damadola, shouting, "Death to America!"

"Once again, we have lost track of Ayman al-Zawahiri," the Pakistani intelligence official said in a recent interview. "He keeps popping on television screens. It's miserable, but we don't know where he or his boss are hiding."

Contributing to this report were staff writers Bradley Graham, Thomas E. Ricks, Josh White, Griff Witte and Allan Lengel in Washington, Kamran Khan in Islamabad and John Lancaster in Wana, Pakistan, and staff researchers Julie Tate and Robert E. Thomason.


<                5

© 2006 The Washington Post Company