Sept. 11 -- Five Years Later

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Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006; 12:30 PM

"The clandestine U.S. commandos whose job is to capture or kill Osama bin Laden haven't received a credible lead in more than two years. Nothing from the vast U.S. intelligence world -- tips from informants, snippets from electronic intercepts, or points on any satellite image -- has led them anywhere near the al Qaeda leader, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials."

"The handful of assets we have, have given us nothing close to real time intelligence that could have led to his capture," said one counterterrorism official, who said the trail has gone 'stone cold.'"

Washington Post staff writer Dana Priest was online Monday, Sept. 11, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss her Sunday article about the hunt for bin Laden.

The transcript follows.

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Dana Priest: Some technical glitches this morning folks. I'm in. Let's begin.

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Alexandria, Va.: Looking at the old films of UBL, he is constantly driving around in SUV's.

Assume that he still drives around, SUV's need gas. Shouldn't we be concentrating on gasoline sources in the rugged areas of Pakistan or Afghanistan?

Dana Priest: Good idea, but I would doubt he would be driving around much these days in something as recognizable as a white SUV. Or else with a great disguise.

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New York, N.Y.: What about all these rumors that bin Laden is on dialysis? Does the U.S. intelligence community have any evidence that he might have kidney problems that hamper his mobility?

Dana Priest: The more I look into that, the less I believe that he is, in fact, on dialysis. Could be, but now I'm betting not.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Good Afternoon Ms. Priest,

Just last week I had a discussion with an individual whose father is a long-time CIA employee. During the Goss blood letting process, he kept his head low, did his job to the best of his abilities, and viewed Gen. Hayden as the guy that could undo some of the damage done to the Agency in the last few years. He recently stated that nothing has changed. He reports to someone just out of college that expects to work 9-5 and have weekends off, and resents getting called into Langley when something big is going on. All that leads me to this question - how in the world can the CIA be expected to fulfill its mission of locating OBL and the rest of AQ, if the agency is gutted and the guideline for hiring replacements isn't based upon ability, but rather is based upon loyalty to the president and his platform?

Dana Priest: Hmm. I would agree they are in a major transition -- to where is uncertain. There's still a big morale problem, but the real issue is their role in the new rejiggered community. That said, I have a very hard time believing that political loyalty plays any role in hiring. Believe me, if anyone out there has any real evidence of that, give me a call (post switchboard is 334-6000), or drop me an email.

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Georgetown,Tex.: Given the numerous video tapes produced of ObL and company for Aljazeera, why haven't our intelligence organizations been able to backtrack his location?

Dana Priest: Simple. The couriers in the process don't know what they are delivering or for whom. There's obviously no tracking statement like UPS issues. You just have a guy that someone you know trusts, carry a package to X address with another address on it. And X address passes it to that address and so on. It's such an old, tried and true method. Used by drug dealers all the time. Al Jazeera, I'm told, usually has no clue they are getting an important package. They just open the mail.

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Chicago, Ill.: Is al-Zawahri thought to be somewhere near Bin Laden? Are there any efforts specifically dedicated to finding al-Zawahri?

Dana Priest: Yes. It's the same units as those tracking UBL. Their responsibility is a set of High Valued Targets (HVTs) that include those two and some others, although I'm not sure how many others at this point.

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Conspiracy Theories..: As you most likely know, there are many conspiracy theories circulating the net regarding OBL.

One of the more interesting ones is that OBL has -already- been caught and is being held in a secret location and trotted out by the Bush Admin. whenever they need to "scare people" following the onset of bad news...

Thoughts? Have you perused any other conspiracy theories that you found interesting yourself?

Dana Priest: If you sat in my seat you wouldn't need conspiracy theories. Reality is so bizarre. Anyway, first, I think it would be hard to keep that secret for long. Second, even if you managed to carry it off, it's a huge risk that the "holding" story would come out afterwards and make people really mad.

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Washington, D.C.: How important is the capture of OBL? Is he still the motive force on the plots that have been executed or planned in the last four years? Or has his organization been neutralized...and the successor-to-9/11 plots are more freelance?

Dana Priest: It's important, probably more symbolically than operationally at this point. Let's hope it would be demoralizing to his followers in some important way. Since he is able to get out these audiotapes, there's also the possibility that he is able to continue to be helpful operationally. Obviously he's a very effective operational thinker.

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Virginia: How about nuke the mountains when he is hiding? How about releasing snipers on the hunt for him? How about illegal methods to hunt down terrorists?

Dana Priest: How about what mountain? The teams hunting him have snipers, they don't have a target. That's the point.

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Mt. Prospect, Ill.: Are there any professional "bounty hunters" or mercenaries out there on the Pakistani Afghan border trying to capture or kill Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar and earn the multi-million dollar reward offered by the U.S.?

Dana Priest: My guess would be that loads of those types thought about it but are unable to make any headway. This is not just a sovereign foreign country (Pakistan), its an insular tribal region where outsiders are killed, and people who help outsiders without the approval of authorities are beheaded.

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Washington, D.C. : If Al Jazeera just open their mail and get a tape, why not any other agency in the world gets it?

Dana Priest: ABC News in Islamabad, I believe, has also been delivered a number of tapes over the years. Not certain why there. I'm sure the reason it goes to Al Jazeera is because they are Arabic speaking and they are the broadcast many of his followers would be watching. There aren't a lot of independent Arab media out there you know. most are state-owned.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: With AQ looking to use "home-grown" terrorists, it seems like we have a perfect opportunity to infiltrate the organization. Do you know if we are trying this?

Dana Priest: Well, by definition "home grown" is actually not probably connected to him in a meaningful way. I would think that law enforcement are trying to infiltrate them for other reasons and if they found a connect, then ...

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Chicago, Ill.: One of Bin Laden's complaints was the presence of the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia. After the invasion of Iraq, sure enough, we withdrew most of our military from Saudi Arabia. Do you think this could have sent a message to him that he can achieve his goals via attacks like 9/11?

Dana Priest: yes, possibly.

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Anonymous: "If you sat in my seat you won't need conspiracy theories. Reality is so bizarre. "

I've thought that if it can be imagined it is possible.

Dana Priest: yep.

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Mt. Prospect, Ill: Is there any downside to capturing or killing Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar?

I would think that either event would drastically improve the president's approval rating and eliminate some of the obstacles he is trying to deal with. That said, is the administration doing everything it can do to find and capture/kill these folks or are they limited by resources and the Pakistani government?

Thanks

Dana Priest: My story on Sunday answered those questions, so I'm hoping they have it posted on the web for you. Downside? Not that I can see.

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washingtonpost.com: Bin Laden Trail 'Stone Cold' (Post, Sept. 10)

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Columbia, Md.: I am having a hard time believing that the United States military and intelligence community does not have a clue where Osama Bin Laden is...

We have some of the most sophisticated minds and technology in the world, as well we pay Pakistan hundreds of million dollars a month ....

Would the resources that we have foolishly spent on the war in Iraq removing a leader who had peace and control over his country help us to locate this man?

Was it Sadam Hussein or Bin Laden who blew up the twin towers? Since we know it was Bin Laden why did we invade Iraq?

Why would these highly paid senators and congressman go along with something that an idiot can see was clearly a policy with another agenda...

Why won't Pakistan allow us inside their country along their border to capture him? If we sent camandos into Pakistan what is the risk? What is the big deal or concern?

Dana Priest: I'll just answer the last question: Pakistan is a Muslim country where bin Laden is a hero to many. The current president is not all that popular. Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons. 1 + 1+ 1 = ?

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Long Beach, Calif.: Thanks Dana for the chat -- but now that the world's largest hub of extreme Muslims, Pakistan, has removed its military from UBL's hiding area in exchange for verbal assurances that the tribes in north waziristan (Where UBL and Zawahiri hide) will stop invading Afghanistan and helping their religious and ethnic brethren the Taliban how are we EVER going to crush Al Qaeda or capture the leaders we're after?

Dana Priest: Very good question. I think this makes it 100 percent harder still.

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Sunrise, Fla.: Do you select only questions that make us Americans seem like whack-balls, ninnies and rubes, or is that just a reflection of reality?

Dana Priest: I'm an equal opportunity chatter. I try for a representative sampling. Although I'm prejudice against long questions.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Is there unanimity about the methodology for tracking OBL? I realize geography plays a major role in shaping this, but has there been any talk of increasing the number of boots on the ground to get him, or is that just not effective?

Dana Priest: To do what? That's the problem. They are increasing the number of people on the effort overall. But to put a lot of new people somewhere where they can't move or do much, now that might not be sooo wise. And you really can't put military boots on the ground without Pakistani approval.

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Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.: In the book "Jawbreaker" the author more or less states that they OBL but dropped the ball. Is this accurate?

Dana Priest: Yes. The administration decided to move out most of its manhunting teams only two months after Tora Bora. A very bizarre decision that was based on their desire to have those troops ready to help with Iraq.

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Chicago, Ill.: Dana,

When do you think was the last clear chance to get Bin Laden? I mean, at what point was he clearly a threat to the U.S. and still reachable? 1998, 2000, 2002?

Dana Priest: Dec. 2001 at Tora Bora

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Arlington, Va.: Dana:

I thought The Post's Sunday front page was a very ironic juxtaposition. Next to a story about how the trail of Osama has gone "stone cold" was a story about how much money the GOP spends on digging up dirt on Democratic candidates. Says a lot about priorities in Washington, don't you think?

Dana Priest: Like I said, who needs conspiracy theories!

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New York, N.Y.: If I were to guess, I'd say that the Pakistani's have OBL detained but the Bad Doctor is still on the loose.

Is is correct to think that those tapes Zawahiri releases aren't put together by one guy in a mountain hut, they reflect a stable organization of people located somewhere, most probably Pakistan?

Dana Priest: I agree with your assessment of the tapes. They show a capability that is very important, and only getting stronger and more sophisticated, and baffling.

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Long Question Bias: I am disappointed that you admit to being biased against long questions. Aren't many of these questions more detailed and worthy of debate and discussion, rather than the CNN effect of one-liners? Not that length is a gauge of quality, but please don't insult your readers with simple answers to simple questions.

Dana Priest: On the contrary, they tend not to be questions, but diatribes wrapped, thinly I might add, in a question.

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Gulf Shores, Ala.: Thanks for your great reporting!!!

Do you think this administration really wants to capture or kill OBL? Some say that would just make him a martyr while other say the president should follow through with his original statement, "wanted dead or alive."

Dana Priest: I do think they want to catch him, or I should say, I do think they want to kill him. I highly doubt he will be captured alive.

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Burke, Va.: Does the recent peace accord between the Pakistanis and the Taliban mean that the Taliban will be able to go across the border with no impediment and that al Quieda will be able to work with impunity?

Dana Priest: It's not supposed to mean that. It's supposed to mean that the Taliban not cause trouble (the pact is with them, not Al Qaeda) and not move across the border into Afghanistan for raids. So even if they fulfill that promise, it could mean that AQ can operate with impunity within that area (since the Pak military is pledging to stay out).

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Chicago, Ill.: What role is Delta Force playing in the hunt for OBL?

Dana Priest: Leading it within the military, along with SEAL Team 6 and JSOC's air force elements.

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Washington, D.C.: If Pakistan is a hindrance to catch or kill OSB, can't the US use force?

Dana Priest: Well, theoretically the US can use force against any sovereign country. But there is always a cost, and there are always unpredictables, so...

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Commerce, Tex.: Although most seem to view that the agreement between the Pakistan Government and the Tribal areas as a negative do you think that over time there may be some positive aspects, such as the most wanted Al Qaeda and Taliban members letting their guard down and also making it easier to infiltrate the remote areas over time?

Dana Priest: Hmm. Hadn't thought of that.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think that there is anything diplomatic (ie, allowing Muslim countries to trade with the West) that can be done to make the Muslim world not hate the West sooo much? Do you think that diplomatic options are feasible?

Dana Priest: Absolutely. The first would be to find a lasting and just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Nothing would turn around our image faster than leading that effort. But it has to be fair to both sides.

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Natick, Mass.: Given Bush's lack of calculation in Iraq -- invade and assume everything is going to go OK -- why assume that it is out of caution about outcomes that we haven't invaded Waziristan?

Dana Priest: Pakistan, unlike Iraq, is actually a U.S. ally.

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Valley Forge, Pa.: Hi Dana,

The comparison to the hunt for Eric Rudolph reinforces the point (maybe multiplied by a hundred ???) that we will only capture bin Laden by pure dumb luck, if ever.

Is there any amount of reward money that would be enough for someone to turn him in?

Your thoughts on the recent Pakistan reports that bin Laden will be left alone as long as he behaves.

Dana Priest: Clarification: The pact is not to let bin Laden live in peace. It's to let the Taliban do so. There is a difference. On your other question: my personal opinion is that no one in Pakistan would ever believe they would collect a $25 million award. It's a figure that too unreal. I would kick it down to $100 for any tips about any AQ in the area and then make sure you hand out bundles of $100 to people, no matter how stupid the tip, in the first month. In other words, get the idea going that it actually is possible to earn some money by dealing with the Americans (through proxies no doubt). You have to build a little credibility somehow first.

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Redondo Beach, Calif.: Would entering the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan with large amounts of conventional ground troops hurt or hinder the effort to pursue and destroy Al Qaeda? What does the military think?

Dana Priest: Well, I'm pretty certain most people think it's crazy. That's really tough terrain that the tribesmen (who you will have just made your enemy) know too well. There was a reason that the Afghan war was not fought that way.

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Chicago, Ill.: If OBL or another HVT was captured, what would happen to them? Taken off to another :"secret" prison?

Dana Priest: yep

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Vienna, Va.: Would it be possible, from the air, either by unmanned drone or helicopter, to map the entire suspected Federated Areas border region in Pakistan (plus in nearby Afghanistan border regions) to locate all the caves? Do we have technology to identify caves and tunnels from the air? One clue would be any underground chambers whose size and shape make them appear man-made from an off-site mapping.

Of course, a better, old-fashioned way would be to try to infiltrate Al-Qaeda from below and get a ethnic Islamic spy of ours sent to one of their secret training camps, and from there, hopefully make further contacts leading to bin Laden's whereabouts.

I agree that this whole bin Laden hunt appears incredibly frustrating. Our best chance was to surround him at Tora Bora in Dec 2001.

Thank you.

Dana Priest: The US NGA does a lot of mapping of tunnels but I highly doubt that can get all of them, and even if they could, could they know what's in them. No. Well, I assume no.

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Ypsilanti, Mich.: Former CIA Director Porter Goss stated that he knows exactly where bin Laden is hiding. If that is the truth, why hasn't the U.S. moved to capture or kill him? If we knew his exact location would we really care if the Pakistanis don't want U.S. troops on its soil? What do you think of Goss' comments?

Dana Priest: I think his words were, well, misleading, should we say. And, yes, I do think US troops would invade--quickly in and out-- to kill UBL and take out his body if they were 95 Percent certain it was him. Then Pakistan could claim it didn't help, and they would probably condemn the incursion and then there would be lots of protests. And then, hopefully, that would be that.

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Alexandria, Va.: When George Bush addresses the 9/11 families, as he has done recently and gets a standing ovation, do any members of the 9/11 families ask him why the U.S. hasn't caught UBL? It seems to me that they would ask what he is doing to capture the murderer of their loved ones. Do the families make the connection that the trail is stoned cold because of his pulling resources to look for UBL in Afghanistan to go into Iraq?

Dana Priest: Yes, many of them do. I'm sure not the ones who were invited to the White House ceremony recently though. The families are not of one mind on Bush's policies as you know.

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Dana Priest: I've got to run now. Thanks for all your questions -- nearly 200 of them. Obviously I couldn't get to many. And I'm certain there are typos throughout.

See you next time. Dana

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