Last week’s remarks by CIA director Michael Hayden at the Atlantic Council continue to draw widespread comment. My consternation at missing the lede notwithstanding, the focus continues to be on the fate of Osama bin Laden


In his remarks, Hayden said,

I can assure you, although there has been press speculation to the contrary, I can assure you that the hunt for bin Laden is very much the top of CIA’s priority list. Because of his iconic stature, his death or capture clearly would have a significant impact on the confidence of his followers, both core al Qaeda and these unaffiliated extremists throughout the world. This is an organization that has never been through a change at the top. For 20 years bin Laden has been the visionary, the inspiration and harmonizing force behind al Qaeda. Whether his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, could maintain unity in the ranks is a genuinely legitimate question. The truth is, we simply don’t know what would happen if bin Laden is killed or captured. But I’m willing to bet that whatever happens, it would work in our favor.

Writing in Salon today, University of Michigan historian Juan Cole asks, “Should Obama chase Osama?” While couching his writing with praise for Obama and contempt for his soon-to-be-predecessor, Cole argues that “There are many reasons why a stepped-up and publicized pursuit of bin Laden may prove costly to Barack Obama.”

The first is the danger of failing, just like his predecessor. After the bravado of the early post-9/11 period, and vows to catch his quarry, Bush came up empty. An enemy who struck at the beginning of his first term is still at loose in the Pakistani-Afghan borderlands at the end of his second.

Moreover, Cole argues, it’s not clear what catching bin Laden would accomplish.

Hayden stressed bin Laden’s symbolic importance more than his operational role, observing, “Because of his iconic stature, his death or capture clearly would have a significant impact on the confidence of his followers.” Unlike Obama, Hayden said that bin Laden “appears to be largely isolated from the day-to-day operations of the organization he nominally heads.”

Cole continues,

It is not clear what exactly the few hundred Arab expatriates in places such as South Waziristan could do from there to the United States. The attacks on Sept. 11 were largely planned by European-trained engineers resident in Europe, and all they got from al-Qaida was ideological direction, training in camps in Afghanistan, money and some extra muscle. Despite Hayden’s fears that training camps are being reestablished in Waziristan, it is not plausible that nowadays well-educated fanatics based in the West could come to them for high-powered training, be provided with money and colleagues, and leave them to come attack the United States. The militants are besieged by the Pakistani, Afghan and NATO militaries. The old al-Qaida seems to have little or no command and control structure left (as Bush admitted already in 2002).

Arguing from the right, former CIA officer and Time intelligence columnist Robert Baer largely agrees.  In a piece entitled, “When Will Obama Give Up the Bin Laden Ghost Hunt?” he argues that there’s good reason to believe that bin Laden is long dead.   Regardless, though, Baer argues,

The important point of Hayden’s Atlantic talk Thursday was that Muslims have turned against bin Laden, realizing that his campaign against the West has ended up killing more Muslims than it has Islam’s enemies. Al-Qaeda may be picking up adherents in North Africa and Yemen, preparing its return, but it certainly is no longer in a position to destabilize Saudi Arabia or any other Arab country. And, although Hayden didn’t say it, there is no good evidence bin Laden is capable of mounting a large-scale attack. He failed to pull off an October surprise, as many in the FBI and CIA had feared he would.

That’s exactly right.  Capturing bin Laden would be satisfying and would, as Hayden suggests, have some impact on the morale of his followers.  But it would likely have little practical effect on diminishing international terrorism.

Interestingly, though, Baer draws a different political lesson than Cole:

Obama has no real choice but to revitalize the search for him, if only for political considerations. If al-Qaeda were to attack in the United States the first months of his term, Obama would end up for the rest of it explaining why he wasn’t more vigilant.

That’s right, as far as it goes.  But it presumes that the search for bin Laden is somehow moribund.  Yet Hayden assured us that “the hunt for bin Laden is very much the top of CIA’s priority list.”  Given that, as Cole fears will happen to Obama, the non-capture of bin Laden has been an albatross around President Bush’s neck, why wouldn’t we believe him? 

As my colleague Peter Cassata reported back in September, we are now using unmanned drones in the bin Laden hunt.  Is there any doubt that Bush would have loved to produce him in time for the November elections?  Or before the end of his term, to help bolster his meager approval ratings?

There’s every reason to believe that Bush desperately wants to “get” bin Laden but can’t, either because he no longer exists or because he’s well hidden in the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan and we lack the human intelligence to find him.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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