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Is bin Laden's fate to be a mystery?

Despite new intelligence capabilities, one government leader says we may never find out what happens to the terrorist mastermind.

By PAUL DE LA GARZA
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 17, 2001


WASHINGTON -- Although the United States has improved its spying capabilities in Afghanistan dramatically since Sept. 11, there is still a possibility that Osama bin Laden will never be found, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said Friday.

"I cannot tell you what his exit will be," Rep. Porter J. Goss said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "I mean, I don't see him in The Hague as a war criminal."

Goss, a Republican from Sanibel, said he saw bin Laden "leaving a legacy, some form of martyrdom, some form of inspiration, you know, the second coming of the second prophet, or dreaming up something, some lore, that will try and vindicate what is happening and allow his band to move on."

He added, "I am assuming he is planning to do that. And that calculus does not allow us to render his body to the world court or something like that. The greater glory of the bin Laden trip to paradise becomes a new chapter in a hijacked religion. For that reason, I'm not sure there's going to be total certainty about what happened to Osama bin Laden."

He said there was already speculation bin Laden was dead.

On Oct. 15, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was confident that the military campaign in Afghanistan would succeed in tracking down bin Laden within 30 days. Goss, however, said part of the problem is that the United States is dealing not only with him but with his entire al-Qaida terrorist network.

The network, among other things, provides him with administrative support, travel, rest homes, and refueling stations.

"They're all out there," said Goss, a former CIA officer who, as committee chairman, gets regular intelligence briefings. "So if he can slip through one of the places in the net as the net tightens, it's not at all inconceivable that he could be spirited away by his cohorts to some place else."

Asked about reports on Iranian radio that bin Laden indeed had slipped into neighboring Pakistan, Goss laughed. "You're going to hear a lot of that," he said. "He's here. He's there. This is going to be the Elvis story."

Regardless, Goss said it was only a matter of time before bin Laden was "neutralized."

"It means that he will no longer effectively be able to plan, organize and execute terrorist operations against the United States. It means he's not going to be there to do this. He will be either detached from his network. He will be no longer living. He will be obliterated. Incinerated. Decimated.

"Or disappear mysteriously and die with a knife in his back in a rat hole in some other country because one of his leaders decided it was better to have him in paradise rather than attracting a bunch of attention."

Since Sept. 11, Goss said the buildup of U.S. spy capabilities in Afghanistan has been nothing short of astounding. He said America's intelligence arsenal includes top secret sensors that have been operating like "superstars" to experts in animal waste, "who can tell you whether it was a horse that passed or an elephant that passed."

He declined to elaborate on the sensors.

"I would simply say that the amount of information we are getting through all of the ways we get information is very, very rewarding."

To underscore the contribution of U.S. intelligence to the war effort in Afghanistan, Goss pointed out that the United States started "with nothing in a very harsh, pretty much denied area, which is the Taliban area."

New technologies, he said, have made it possible to have precise target information and target selection. "We are putting the right kind of ordnance at the right spot at the right time so that horses can beat tanks, that is an amazing accomplishment, given the time where we started," Goss said.

Immediately after the attacks in New York and Washington, U.S. intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan, Goss said, were "just about nowhere."

He credited President Bush and a national security team willing to take risks for improvement.

Asked how bin Laden had managed to elude America's technical prowess, Goss said, "It's still not enough to catch terrorists."

"Catching terrorists like this really means having penetrations to get into thoughts and minds of these people," Goss said.

In Afghanistan, he said, recruiting a spy is virtually impossible.

"They know in a second that they will be butchered horribly and tortured horribly if they're caught," Goss said. "So they can't have any spy gear on them. They can't do anything suspicious. It's very hard. They don't travel out of the country.

"You know, there's no Geneva Bar you can go meet and talk to them in, so this is a very tough target when you really get down into how spying works."

Goss also addressed the threat of terrorism at home, saying that while terrorists were capable of acquiring weapons of mass destruction, his gut -- and not intelligence sources -- told him they did not have much capability.

"I don't think that there is a big silver bullet weapon that they are going to aim in the name of Allah, their hijacked Allah, to knock us out. I just don't see that," he said.

"All of this stuff that Omar, that the mullah is making noises, the world is going to end and we will be on our knees, this is rhetoric," Goss said, referring to recent threats against the United States by the Taliban's supreme leader.

"I think the capability they have is to take one of our benign-use items and turn them and use them against us. He cited shopping centers, for example.

Goss said it was only natural for terrorists to want to take a "jab" against the United States at home to give their troops something to cheer about. "They've got to have a cheerleading event other than just rhetoric, just Mullah Omar making noise on CNN, although that is a propaganda victory to get that out, to do that kind of thing."

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Goss said the "sense of purpose and the sense of mission has created a huge esprit" within the intelligence community.

"I mean just look at the recruiting that is going on on the campuses," he said. "Look at the list of people who want to come work at CIA who are at the other agencies, it's astonishing.

"How many years ago it was that CIA wasn't allowed to do any recruiting on campuses. It was not that long ago.

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