Aug 16, 2006

Bin Laden, CIA links Hogwash

August 15, 2006 Tuesday 3:06 PM EST

LENGTH: 1457 words

HEADLINE: Bergen: Bin Laden, CIA links hogwash



CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen says the notion that Osama bin Laden once worked for the CIA is "simply a folk myth" and that there's no shred of evidence to support such theories. asked users to send questions to Bergen as part of an upcoming documentary, "In the Footsteps of bin Laden," which premieres on August 23 at 9 p.m. ET. Here are his answers:

QUESTION: If you could see bin Laden face-to-face again, what one question would you ask him? From Donna Salley, Shreveport, Louisiana

BERGEN: Where in the Quran can you find justification for killing innocent civilians?

Q: How is it the richest country with the most powerful military machine ever to walk this Earth cannot locate and eliminate a single man? Steven Harper, Arlington, Washington

BERGEN: A good response to that is Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park bomber, evaded capture for five years and he was captured about five miles from where he was living in the first place -- meaning if you have somebody who is motivated and you have a support network and you don't make stupid mistakes, you can evade capture anywhere inside the United States.

Bin Laden, of course, isn't in the United States. He's most likely in Pakistan, where the U.S. military isn't even allowed to go in. So, the problem of finding one person is much harder than you might imagine.

Q: Why can't we just trace his money and find him? Colleen Roan, Stewartsville, New Jersey

BERGEN: He's making no ATM transactions right now. He doesn't require a lot of money to live. He's lived a kind of monk-like life for a long time. Even when he had millions in the bank, he was sleeping on the floor, he wasn't drinking cold water. He was living a life very much disattached from material goods. It seemed like he had been preparing for this for a very long time. And he certainly isn't making cash withdrawals that can be traced.

In that part of the world, 100 bucks goes a long way. Terrorism is a very cheap form of warfare and you just don't need a lot of money to do these sorts of things.

When al Qaeda was running a dozen training camps in Afghanistan and they were paying people and they had a substantial bureaucracy, that required some money. But at this point, what he's doing doesn't require a lot of money. And whatever money it is, it's probably just money coming in from individual donations that are somehow coming into his pockets.

Q: Have you identified effective strategies that would have assisted with his capture? Sealing the borders before the onset of U.S. action in Afghanistan? Marilyn Rice, Naperville, Illinois

BERGEN: Bin Laden was at the battle of Tora Bora and if the United States had more American boots on the ground, as the documentary points out, there would have been a better chance of getting him. But as it was, there were only maybe a couple dozen U.S. troops on the ground and Tora Bora is a large area and he basically got away.

Now, the best way of finding him is the chain of custody of these audio and videotapes that he keeps releasing, mostly to Al-Jazeera. If you could trace back the chain of custody, you could find him. But the problem is there's probably a lot of people in that chain of custody -- maybe a dozen people. And each one of those people may not know anybody, except the next person down the line or not even that. So it's not easy.

But that is his main weakness right now: Every time he releases a tape, it raises the possibility you could trace back the chain of custody to him.

Q: Why has the U.S. treated Pakistan so lightly in the war on terror? Richard DiBenedetto, Heriot Bay, British Columbia, Canada

BERGEN: The U.S.-Pakistan relation is a very interesting one. Pakistani officials would point out that 500 of their guys have been killed in fights with Taliban and al Qaeda fighters and that they've arrested a lot of al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. That would be their defense.

In addition, the Pakistani role in arresting a number of the suspects in the Heathrow terror plot indicates a continued Pakistani willingness to engage in the fight against lower levels of al Qaeda.

On the other hand, my personal view is that the Pakistani government doesn't have a big appetite to go after bin Laden. He's such a hot potato for them. No Pakistani government really wants to be involved in capturing or killing bin Laden because of his popularity domestically.

So I think the picture of Pakistan is a mixed one. They certainly are not going after the Taliban -- to the extent that the Taliban have an HQ in Pakistan. All the top leadership are there. It's a very mixed picture with Pakistan.

Pakistanis certainly feel like they've done a lot. President Pervez Musharraf has survived two very serious assassination attempts as a result of his role in the war on terror. So they feel they are doing everything they can. The United States wants to push Pakistan to do more, but is also cognizant of the fact they can only push them so far. There are some political realities that the Pakistani government has to deal with, and I think the United States has to some degree given President Musharraf a little bit of latitude -- on the theory that whoever replaces Musharraf might be less on board with the war on terror.

Q: I thought bin Laden was seriously ill with kidney problems. If so, how is he getting his medication and is he on dialysis in any form? John Hatington, Stratford, Connecticut

BERGEN: This is sort of wishful thinking. Bin Laden has got some chronic health problems, but none of them are life-threatening. He certainly doesn't have kidney disease, because he'd be dead by now if he did.

He's not going to die of natural causes anytime soon.

Q: What are the ties between Iran's regime and bin Laden? Shirin Nariman, Vienna, Virginia

BERGEN: Interestingly, there are some senior members of al Qaeda under some form of house arrest in Iran, including one of bin Laden's sons, Saad, and also the military commander of al Qaeda, Saif al Adel.

Quite what the Iranians are doing with these people, who knows? They are basically bargaining chips if the United States and Iran ever do some kind of grand bargain. There is an Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group, the MEK, which is regarded as a terrorist organization by the State Department. And if the United States and Iran ever did a deal, the idea would be that the United States would put pressure on MEK to either give up or transfer them into some form of Iranian custody. On the other hand, these al Qaeda guys in Iran would be handed over to the United States.

The likelihood of that happening is very low. But I think that's why these people are being held by Iran.

Q: If it's true that bin Laden once worked for the CIA, what makes you so sure that he isn't still? Anne Busigin, Toronto, Canada

BERGEN: This is one of those things where you cannot put it out of its misery.

The story about bin Laden and the CIA -- that the CIA funded bin Laden or trained bin Laden -- is simply a folk myth. There's no evidence of this. In fact, there are very few things that bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the U.S. government agree on. They all agree that they didn't have a relationship in the 1980s. And they wouldn't have needed to. Bin Laden had his own money, he was anti-American and he was operating secretly and independently.

The real story here is the CIA didn't really have a clue about who this guy was until 1996 when they set up a unit to really start tracking him.

Q: Has there really been a hunt for bin Laden, and if so by whom? Patrick Welch, Brewer, Maine

BERGEN: There has been a hunt for bin Laden, but there's an interesting stalemate right now. Bin Laden, by any reasonable account, is in Pakistan and the U.S. military cannot go into Pakistan because the Pakistani government won't allow that. It would be political suicide for them to allow U.S. military to be tramping around their country.

So, yes, there is a hunt, but it's somewhat stymied by the fact that the one place the U.S. military can't go and find him is the country where he's almost certainly in.

Q: I would like to know if America is any closer to finding the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden today than we were before? Michele S., Slidell, Louisiana

BERGEN: The one moment where the U.S. government knew where he was was the battle of Tora Bora. And now he's believed to be in the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan. There is a sense that he might be in a northern area of the North-West Frontier province in an area called Chitral.

So, there is a little bit better sense of where he might be, but this is a big area and he's not making any obvious mistakes. But the short answer is: Other than the battle of Tora Bora, there haven't been really any good opportunities since 9/11 to get him.

LOAD-DATE: August 16, 2006