$7.2 BILLION U.S. military aid to Pakistan since 9/11
$50 MILLION Reward offered by the State Department for the capture or killing of bin Laden
29 Number of audio and video messages from bin Laden since 9/11
Every Thursday morning, President George W. Bush gets an intelligence briefing from CIA chief General Michael Hayden. Invariably, according to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, the President asks, "How are we doing on No. 1 and No. 2?"--meaning Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The answer, more often than not, amounts to "Same as last week, Mr. President." Despite a seven-year manhunt along the lawless frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda's leader and his deputy remain at large, thanks to their superior knowledge of the terrain and the protection of local tribes. Now bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have an added advantage: the precarious state of Pakistani politics.
Counterterrorism officials say the best hope for nabbing No. 1 and No. 2 may lie in the capture of second-tier al-Qaeda commanders who know where their bosses are hiding. A recent CIA report speculates that bin Laden has long-term kidney disease and may have only months to live, two U.S. officials familiar with the report told TIME. (A CIA spokesman denied the report exists.) The Pentagon has requested that Bush sign an "execute order" expanding its authority to go after these commanders in Pakistani territory; senior counterterrorism and Defense Department officials tell TIME that broader authority for cross-border strikes from Afghanistan is awaiting consideration by the President and his top advisers. But some in the Administration are reluctant to cross that line for fear of destabilizing Pakistan's recently elected government.
The Administration limited cross-border operations when General Pervez Musharraf was in charge in Islamabad, on the grounds that they might undermine the authority of a key ally in the war on terrorism. Musharraf's troops were meant to track down al-Qaeda commanders on the Pakistani side of the border, a task they performed fitfully. When a coalition of democratic parties came to power after elections in February, the Administration braced itself for even less help hunting terrorists. Sure enough, the new government scaled back antiterrorism operations and promised to find a political solution to the growing pro--al-Qaeda militancy in the border regions. Having pressured Musharraf to hold the elections and share power, the Administration had little option but to play along. But dithering among the country's new leaders and the Pakistani military has allowed jihadi groups to expand their operations, making al-Qaeda's leadership harder to reach than it has been in years.
In theory, though, bin Laden should not feel safe. U.S. special-ops teams have a standing order to capture or kill him and al-Zawahiri whenever the opportunity arises--even if that means crossing the border. But going after second-tier commanders requires lengthier approvals that are not always granted. "Are you willing to go after them, boots on the ground or high collateral damage, and potentially be politically counterproductive?" asks a senior U.S. counterterrorism official. "That's the political struggle the U.S. government has right now."
It's a difficult decision. As yet, says the counterterrorism official, there is no conclusive intelligence on the whereabouts of the second-tier commanders. If Bush signs the execute order, he will be increasing the risk that faulty intelligence could produce tragic mistakes--and public relations disasters--like the U.S. air strike on June 10 that killed 11 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers near the Afghan border, causing explosive outrage nationwide.
The Pakistanis privately say they will tolerate a U.S. incursion if it is directed specifically against bin Laden or al-Zawahiri--but nobody else. A senior Pakistani official tells TIME that this will be the message Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani delivers to President Bush when they meet in Washington at the end of July. "If they do a raid and they find No. 3 or No. 4 or No. 5 but don't get bin Laden, it's going to be a real problem," says the official. Risking Pakistan instability, however, may be the only way for the President to get a different answer to his routine Thursday-morning question.