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Remember "Osama, dead or alive"? The President's indelible declaration of U.S. intention to get him, back in the first days of the war on terrorism a year ago, made the capture or demise of the al-Qaeda leader essential to victory. In the months since, as the bearded, 6-ft., 5-in. leader managed to elude spy satellites and listening devices, along with the hail of bombs at Tora Bora and the lure of a $27 million bounty, the Administration has downplayed the importance of the man while emphasizing instead the pursuit of his organization. In the meantime, his adherents fled, regrouped, adapted, and launched terrorist attacks in new guises.
With the iconic leader back vowing high-level terrorism, Americans are left to wonder why the No. 1 target of the war's original manhunt is still at large. Democrats, pummeled by Bush during the midterm elections for being soft on terrorism, saw a chance for payback. "We can't find bin Laden. We haven't made real progress in finding key elements of al-Qaeda," said soon to be Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. "They continue to be as great a threat today as they were one and a half years ago. So by what measure can we claim to be successful so far?" American citizens may well be wondering the same thing. But the comment incensed the White House. "Tom Daschle has participated in classified and unclassified briefings about the war," said an angry Bush aide. "He knows the incredible level of success of the U.S. operations."
But by some measures, bin Laden's demise is just as important a symbol of success. And the return of bin Laden could complicate Bush's pursuit of Saddam by creating a conflict between his goals, or at least the appearance of one. Eager to show that Bush has not shifted all his attention to Saddam, Rice pointed out that Bush still "begins his day on the war on terrorism and the threat levels and the threat information we have about the United States. This is the central focus of this Administration." White House officials also leaked word that a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative was recently captured and is in U.S. custody. They would not say who he was but acknowledged that he was not one of bin Laden's top aides.