To take out Osama bin Laden with a search-and-destroy mission, you have just a few minutes to find, identify and attack. How do you locate one man--one wary, mobile guerrilla--amid the trackless peaks and chasms of Afghanistan? He's protected by caves and safe houses and ultraloyal bodyguards. He travels with a few aides he has known for life, in vehicles that change daily, perhaps with a decoy double nearby. You've got eyes in the sky scanning every rocky quadrant, and those satellites can see trucks and buildings and moving people--but they can't pick out his face. Technology might get you close, but not close enough: You need another man--someone in his inner circle or in the Taliban, or overheard chattering unwisely--to give him up.
So the U.S. must get its eyes and ears down to ground level. It might start the search in the mud-brick city of Peshawar, Pakistan, hard by the Afghan border at the foot of the Khyber Pass. This is where the terrorists meet, form cells and deploy--and where access to the closed world of the Taliban begins. Bin Laden's foot soldiers regularly slip through the walled enclaves and jostling bazaars to recruit jihadis or send out instructions. Taliban fighters float through to spy and resupply. Every Afghan faction has its representative in some dim house. Intelligence agents linger in the lobby of the Pearl Continental Hotel, where the phones are tapped and drivers let fall scraps of information. Places like this are where the operatives who can pin a real-time target on bin Laden must be recruited or bought or blackmailed. But the terrorists have their agents here too, looking for those who are looking for them.
No Western CIA man is going to penetrate these dark corners. Even if the agency's directorate of operations had an adequate supply of case officers who speak the local dialects--which it doesn't--the Americans typically attach them to embassies and consulates, where their diplomatic cover makes them easy to spot, and the CIA's risk-averse ethos precludes any attempt to go native. Back home, intelligence sources tell TIME, the agency's directorate of intelligence had just one Afghan analyst prior to Sept. 11, and he's been moved to a special center near the State Department to work 18 hours a day.
The American intelligence community's single greatest failing is its lack of good "humint"--human intelligence, the dirty, diligent, shoe-leather penetration of terror networks. The humint void is behind the CIA's failure to pick up advance word of the Sept. 11 attacks, and it makes ferreting out bin Laden especially hard. "We don't have real spies anymore who go out and get dirt under their nails," admits an Administration official. The CIA rolled up most of its regional networks when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989. Its old sources dried up, and the Executive Order that put restrictions on hiring local assets with unsavory backgrounds made the agency reluctant to rent new ones. Now, says Senate Intelligence chairman Bob Graham, "it's a high priority to get a foreign national who will become our spy and have the entree to get close enough to the head of al-Qaeda."