Few Options For Obama In War On Al-Qaida President-elect Barack Obama has charged that the Bush administration "took its eyes off the ball," allowing Osama bin Laden to escape and al-Qaida to regroup. But recently, the Bush administration has intensified its efforts to go after al-Qaida.

Few Options For Obama In War On Al-Qaida

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It remains unclear who was behind the attacks in India. Each time attacks of this magnitude occur, the question comes up quickly, was it al-Qaeda? And the hunt for the leadership of al-Qaeda is one of the most serious challenges President-elect Barack Obama will inherit. Here is Mr. Obama on the CBS program "60 Minutes."

(Soundbite of TV show "60 Minutes," November 16, 2008)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Senator, Illinois): It is a top priority for us to stamp out al-Qaeda once and for all. And I think capturing or killing Bin Laden is a critical aspect of stamping out al-Qaeda.

NORRIS: Well, President-elect Obama has his work cut-out for him. NPR intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten has the latest in our series of Memos to the President.

TOM GJELTEN: Barack Obama says the fight against al-Qaeda will get more attention under his administration than it has under George Bush. He claims the Bush administration dropped its pursuit of Osama bin Laden at the conclusion of the 2001 Afghanistan war, in order to prepare for the war in Iraq. In fact, some intelligence resources - from satellite surveillance to Arabic-speaking linguists - were redirected at that time, as the Bush administration turned from Bin Laden to a new target, Saddam Hussein.

Mr. MATT LEVITT (Former Senior Intelligence Official, Treasury Department): I don't think it's fair to say that this administration took its eyes completely off the ball. But I think it is fair to say that it took on more things.

GJELTEN: Matt Levitt, who until last year served as a senior intelligence official in the Treasury Department, a key position on the Bush administration's counterterrorism team. Now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Levitt says that by pulling out of Iraq, Obama could redirect surveillance capabilities and other intelligence assets back to the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network, at least in theory.

Mr. LEVITT: The fact is that a military war takes a tremendous amount of intelligence resources, and if we were able to then focus those resources elsewhere, that would enable us to be better focused on capturing Osama bin Laden and focusing on the al-Qaeda terrorist threat.

GJELTEN: But how much can be gained here is not clear. Even in the best of circumstances, some intelligence resources will still be needed in Iraq. Also, many U.S. intelligence assets have already been refocused on the hunt for bin Laden. In the last four months alone, CIA operators have directed about 20 missile strikes from unmanned aircraft in Pakistan, targeting suspected al-Qaeda figures. In a recent speech, CIA Director Michael Hayden questioned whether his agency could do a whole lot more to find Osama bin Laden.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. MICHAEL HAYDEN (Director, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency): Although there has been press speculation to the contrary, I can assure you that the hunt for bin Laden is very much at the top of the CIA's priority list.

GJELTEN: During the campaign, Barack Obama said he'd support going after bin Laden inside Pakistan with or without the approval of the Pakistani government. That actually sounded like Bush administration policy. President Bush last July personally approved U.S. military commando raids on al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan. One intelligence official involved in planning such raids says there were two in September, the second one aborted after Pakistani forces fired on the U.S. commandos inside Pakistani territory. Asked what other U.S. operations Barack Obama could order inside Pakistan to stamp out al-Qaeda, the intelligence officer said, if there were anything else to do, we'd have already done it. Robert Grenier, who served both as CIA station chief in Pakistan and as head of the agency's counter-terrorism center, says his advice is to forget about unilateral actions. Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders are hiding in mountainous areas of Pakistan, he says, where ultimately only the Pakistani government can assert control.

Mr. ROBERT GRENIER (CIA Station Chief, Pakistan): In order to meet our tactical aims, to capture and kill al-Qaeda members who pose a clear and present danger to us, as well as denying safe haven to these people, we need a long-term common strategy with the Pakistanis.

GJELTEN: In fact, some of the more promising counter-terrorism opportunities for an Obama administration lie outside the military domain. Mike Jacobson worked with Matt Levitt at the Treasury Department, where he tracked al-Qaeda financing. He says Obama is positioned to demand more help from European countries in this area than George Bush has been able to get.

Mr. MIKE JACOBSON (U.S. Treasury Department): Over the last few years, it had gotten very easy to say no to the Bush administration. Domestically, politically, they knew that there weren't going to be consequences of saying no, and in fact it would be a relatively popular thing. And the feeling right now is that if Obama calls one of the European leaders, it's going to be very hard for that European country or the Europeans in general to say no in this initial period.

GJELTEN: Finally, Obama has one more advantage. His election as an African-American with a Muslim father demonstrates that the United States may not be the racist, anti-Muslim country that Osama bin Laden and his followers have long portrayed. By the mere fact of who he is, Barack Obama could position the United States to be more effective in the struggle for Muslim hearts and minds. And Robert Grenier formerly of the CIA says that's ultimately what's important.

Mr. GRENIER: We've got to be mindful not only of the need to win battles but also to win the war. We need to be keeping our eye on the long-term strategic prize.

GJELTEN: Some analysts already see hints that the prospect of an Obama presidency is presenting an ideological challenge to the al-Qaeda movement. The fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri, number two behind bin Laden, ridiculed Obama as a house negro in a recent video message is a sure sign, these analysts say, that he and other al-Qaeda leaders are feeling nervous about the U.S. president-elect. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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