U.S. Increases Effort in Capturing Bin Laden

WASHINGTON -- The clandestine U.S. commandos whose job is to capture or kill Osama bin Laden have not received a credible lead in more than two years. Nothing from the vast U.S. intelligence world -- no tips from informants, no snippets from electronic intercepts, no points on any satellite image -- has led them anywhere near the al-Qaida leader, U.S. and Pakistani officials have said.

"The handful of assets we have had given to us is nothing close to real-time intelligence" that could have led to his capture, said one counterterrorism official, who said the trail, despite the most extensive manhunt in U.S. history, had gone "stone cold."

But in the last three months, following a request from U.S. President George W. Bush to "flood the zone," the CIA has sharply increased the number of intelligence officers and assets devoted to the pursuit of bin Laden. The intelligence officers will team with the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command and other intelligence agencies.

The problem, former and current counterterrorism officials say, is that no one is certain where the "zone" is.

"Here you've got a guy who's gone off the net and is hiding in some of the most formidable terrain, in one of the most remote parts of the world, surrounded by people he trusts implicitly," said T. McCreary, spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center.

Intelligence officials think that bin Laden is hiding in the northern reaches of the autonomous tribal region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This calculation is based largely on a lack of activity elsewhere and on other intelligence, including a videotape, obtained exclusively by the CIA and not previously reported, that shows bin Laden walking on a trail toward Pakistan at the end of the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, when U.S. forces came close but failed to capture him.

It has been so long since there has been anything like a real close call that some operatives have given bin Laden a nickname -- Elvis -- for all the wishful-thinking sightings that have substituted for anything real.