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Is bin Laden's freedom a sign the war on terror has stalled?

By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2002


WASHINGTON -- It has been more than a year since President Bush promised to capture Osama bin Laden, dead or alive. And now we know the terrorist leader is still on the loose.

Administration officials recently acknowledged the authenticity of a new audiotape in which bin Laden continues to incite his supporters to rise up against the United States. In it, he calls on U.S. citizens to repent for their sins against humanity by embracing Islam.

"It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind," bin Laden said. ". . . We call on you to end your support of the corrupt leaders in our countries."

No one seems to know where bin Laden is hiding. The best guess of many experts is that he has fled to the tribal regions of Pakistan or to Yemen. He is believed to be in poor health and cut off from contact with other al-Qaida leaders.

Democrats have argued -- unfairly, perhaps -- that the survival of bin Laden demonstrates that the Bush administration's war against terrorism is a failure. They also suggest Bush's focus on Iraq has distracted the government from its commitment to the more general assault on terrorism.

On the contrary, there is evidence the U.S. government has succeeded in sapping some of the financial and tactical strength of al-Qaida. But bin Laden is still a very important figure.

Bin Laden followers have been increasingly active in recent weeks. Intelligence agencies suspect al-Qaida was responsible for attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya last week and for an earlier explosion at a popular club in Bali.

Michael E. O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank, says that bin Laden's "ability to inspire and recruit remains powerful." And, in fact, U.S. officials believe his terrorist network is poised for another attack on the United States in the near future.

"Bin Laden is alive," O'Hanlon says. "This is bad news."

A summary of Bush's accomplishments published by the White House last week indicates that the president may be feeling unduly satisfied with the results of his war on terrorism, even though bin Laden has eluded him. Instead of making his usual muscular threats against "evildoers," he now is boasting about incremental policy changes that have, as yet, produced no results.

Under the heading of "Winning the War on Terrorism," the president's accomplishments are described as follows: "The president signed legislation to help win the war against terrorism, pay our troops and help New York City recover from the terrorist attacks. And the president signed into law historic increases in defense spending to boost national security."

That same business-as-usual attitude was reflected in the president's response to reports last week that Princess Haifa al-Faisal, wife of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, may have contributed money to the support of two of the hijackers involved in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush still thinks "the Saudis have been a good partner in the war against terrorism."

The public has yet to see any current evidence of that partnership, however. So far, the United States has been denied permission to use Saudi bases or airspace in staging its threatened attack on Iraq.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi Arabia has been the largest single source of funding for al-Qaida. Many Saudi citizens sit on the boards of charitable organizations that are believed to support terrorism.

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat who has played a role in hunting U.S.-based al-Qaida sleeper cells, says the administration's efforts to infiltrate or otherwise gather intelligence on the terrorist network have been inadequate.

"I don't think anybody thinks its being done as well as it could be," Spitzer said. "It is the most important issue facing us right now. ... Our intelligence systems have not done what they have to do. They have failed and we have to examine them from top to bottom. More important, we've got to get in there (with informants) and find out who these folks are."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., complains that U.S. intelligence agencies are still organized to fight the Cold War and CIA Director George Tenet "apparently is resigned to having ... little authority over the intelligence community he is supposed to lead."

Perhaps the only good news about the war on terrorism comes from the Boston Globe, which reported last week that the CIA has started handing out millions of dollars in unmarked bills to foreign intelligence contacts who can help track down al-Qaida leaders.

The war on terrorism should not focus entirely on capturing bin Laden. Still, it seems fair to ask: Is the Bush administration giving up the search for him?

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