Remember President Bush's steely determination to get Osama bin Laden Dead or Alive? Turns out he meant we'll get him, if we happen to bump into him.
The New York Times reports this morning that "The Central Intelligence Agency has closed a unit that for a decade had the mission of hunting Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants".
The unit, known as Alec Station, was disbanded late last year and its analysts reassigned within the C.I.A. Counterterrorist Center, the officials said.
The decision is a milestone for the agency, which formed the unit before Osama bin Laden became a household name and bolstered its ranks after the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush pledged to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice "dead or alive."
Michael Scheuer, a former senior C.I.A. official who was the first head of the unit, said the move reflected a view within the agency that Mr. bin Laden was no longer the threat he once was.
Mr. Scheuer said that view was mistaken.
"This will clearly denigrate our operations against Al Qaeda," he said. "These days at the agency, bin Laden and Al Qaeda appear to be treated merely as first among equals."
Of course there's more to the shuttering of Alec Station than just that new view– there's also that colossal waste of lives and resources that is our Iraq adventure.
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In recent years, the war in Iraq has stretched the resources of the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, generating new priorities for American officials. For instance, much of the military's counterterrorism units, like the Army's Delta Force, had been redirected from the hunt for Mr. bin Laden to the search for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed last month in Iraq.
It'll be interesting to see if this bit of bin Laden news gets anymore attention than another recent Osama revelation that the great investigative reporter Robert Parry describes as a "stunning CIA disclosure... tucked away in a brief passage near the end of Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, which draws heavily from CIA insiders."
On Oct. 29, 2004, just four days before the U.S. presidential election, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden released a videotape denouncing George W. Bush. Some Bush supporters quickly spun the diatribe as "Osama's endorsement of John Kerry." But behind the walls of the CIA, analysts had concluded the opposite: that bin-Laden was trying to help Bush gain a second term.
According to Suskind's book, CIA analysts had spent years "parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, [Ayman] Zawahiri. What they'd learned over nearly a decade is that bin-Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. …
"Their [the CIA's] assessments, at day's end, are a distillate of the kind of secret, internal conversations that the American public [was] not sanctioned to hear: strategic analysis. Today's conclusion: bin-Laden's message was clearly designed to assist the President's reelection.
"At the five o'clock meeting, [deputy CIA director] John McLaughlin opened the issue with the consensus view: 'Bin-Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President.'"
McLaughlin's comment drew nods from CIA officers at the table. Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, suggested that the al-Qaeda founder may have come to Bush's aid because bin-Laden felt threatened by the rise in Iraq of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; bin-Laden might have thought his leadership would be diminished if Bush lost the White House and their "eye-to-eye struggle" ended.
But the CIA analysts also felt that bin-Laden might have recognized how Bush's policies – including the Guantanamo prison camp, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the endless bloodshed in Iraq – were serving al-Qaeda's strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.
"Certainly," the CIA's Miscik said, "he would want Bush to keep doing what he's doing for a few more years," according to Suskind's account of the meeting.
As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts drifted into silence, troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. "An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin-Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched," Suskind wrote.
One immediate consequence of bin-Laden breaking nearly a year of silence to issue the videotape the weekend before the U.S. presidential election was to give the Bush campaign a much needed boost. From a virtual dead heat, Bush opened up a six-point lead, according to one poll.
Of course, to be sure that that's what Osama had in mind, we'll have to ask him... assuming, that is, we ever find him.