Video: Bush and bin Laden

updated 3/3/2005 12:52:53 PM ET 2005-03-03T17:52:53

President Bush made rare mention of Osama bin Laden on Thursday, calling efforts to block the terrorist leader’s hope of attacking America again “the greatest challenge of our day.”

Bush insisted the so-far unsuccessful hunt for the al-Qaida founder is “keeping the pressure on.”

The White House has sought to play down the significance of bin Laden to the global anti-terror battle, since the trail has gone cold on him more than three years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. As a result, Bush hardly ever utters the name of the man he once declared wanted “dead or alive” and repeatedly promised would be caught.

But bin Laden made the headlines again this week, as intelligence officials said he has enlisted the help of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the top al-Qaida figure in Iraq, to plan new attacks inside the United States.

Bush sees al-Zarqawi tie
At the ceremonial swearing-in for the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Mike Chertoff, Bush confirmed that contact between bin Laden and al-Zarqawi.

IMAGE: Bin Laden
Mazhar Ali Khan  /  AP file
Bin Laden speaks to journalists in Khost, Afghanistan, in 1998.
“We’re on a constant hunt for bin Laden. We’re keeping the pressure on him, keeping him in hiding. And today Zarqawi understands the coalition and Iraqi troops are on a constant hunt for him as well,” Bush said at the Ronald Reagan federal building near the White House.

“Bin Laden’s message is a telling reminder that al-Qaida still hopes to attack us on our own soil,” he said. “Stopping him is the greatest challenge of our day, and under Mike’s leadership we will do everything in our power to meet that challenge.”

Chertoff, 51, has promised to balance protecting the country with preserving civil liberties as head of the sprawling agency that was created as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“Mike is wise and he is tough — in a good way,” Bush said.

Bush proclaimed progress in other areas of protecting the nation from attack, saying that the campaign against terrorist cells is succeeding and that “extraordinary measures” have been taken to beef up domestic protection. Both points have been hotly disputed by others.

The president acknowledged there is much more to do.

“We cannot afford to become complacent,” Bush said. “As we adapt our defenses, the terrorists will adapt their tactics in response. ... They continue to pose a great threat to the American people.”

'The trail has gone cold'
In the search for bin Laden, Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said in December 2004 “the trail has gone cold,” and U.S. officials largely agree.

Bin Laden is believed to have evaded capture first during the 2001 battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan and then by hiding along the Afghan-Pakistani border with his top deputy and a circle of supporters protecting him at all costs. Some experts believe he may also be spending time in Pakistani cities.

U.S. personnel including CIA paramilitary, contractors and some of the military’s highly trained special forces have been on the hunt. In a recent report, the Congressional Research Service said 18,000 U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan, running down al-Qaida and Taliban, joined by thousands of Pakistani forces and agents.

Yet a former intelligence official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, wondered about recent decisions on U.S. resources. The official said intelligence and military assets were moved from Afghanistan to Iraq for the Jan. 30 elections there, and it’s unclear whether they went back.

Asked to confirm the shift, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable said, “As a matter of security, we don’t comment on operational matters.”

The Pentagon consumes roughly 80 percent of the classified intelligence budget, estimated at $40 billion.

The No. 2 commander in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, recently said he was concerned that U.S. policy-makers will seize on an apparent drop in militant attacks to cut coalition troops to ease the pressure on forces stretched by their deployment in Iraq. Olson added that he did not anticipate any letup in the mission to find bin Laden.

What's capture worth?
Since the late 1990s, the government has debated how best to get the terror leader and what his capture is worth. In the 2001 Patriot Act, lawmakers authorized the State Department, through its Rewards for Justice Program, to pay more than $5 million.

In November, Congress authorized increasing the reward for information leading to bin Laden’s killing or capture to $50 million. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hasn’t boosted the reward.

State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said officials are constantly assessing the success of their efforts. “There are no plans at this time to raise the reward. It is at the discretion of the secretary,” he said.

Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who was behind the most recent rewards legislation, said the department is moving fast — “for the normal speed limit at the State Department” — in its consideration of the November legislation.

Kirk applauded other efforts under way, including a recent television, newspaper and radio campaign in four languages to remind Pakistanis about the reward. He was responsible for this legislation too.

Kirk advises patience. On a trip to Pakistan in January, when newspaper ads were running, he said U.S. officials were getting a dozen tips a day on al-Qaida’s leadership — up from zero.

A network, not one person
James Pavitt, head of the CIA’s clandestine service until last summer, said he supports putting anything on the table to find bin Laden.

“That said, for the most part, it is hard for you and me to comprehend what that sort of money is,” Pavitt said. “Imagine what it would be for the person in a position to give the tip. Would they be in the position to know the difference between $1 million, $5 million, $10 million?”

While the symbolic importance of capturing bin Laden remains high, Pavitt also stressed the importance of going after the network. “The issue is a network, and it is a network that is more diffuse than it was three-and-half years ago,” he said.

Meanwhile, bin Laden continues to operate. He released a video addressed to the American people days before the November elections, appearing healthy, shaven and lit by studio lights.

Within the last several weeks, U.S. officials say bin Laden has been in contact with al-Zarqawi, who first pledged his loyalty to bin Laden in October. Al-Zarqawi is believed to run his own network in Iraq — aligned with al-Qaida and receptive to its cause but maintaining some autonomy.

Yet Vince Cannistraro, former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, said the message may be good news: “If you’ve got to go to Zarqawi to ask him to do operations in the U.S., that sounds pretty desperate.”

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