The FBI's head of counterterrorism said Wednesday that he believed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden was dead, the first time a senior law enforcement figure had suggested that bin Laden did not survive the US military campaign in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
DALE WATSON, the FBI's executive assistant director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence, quickly emphasized that he had no evidence that bin Laden, who is believed to have directed the attacks in Washington and New York, was dead. But his comments, at a conference of local law enforcement officials from across the country, suggested that the FBI had no direct intelligence that proved bin Laden was alive.
"Is he alive, or is he dead?" Watson asked. "I am not really sure of the answer. ... I personally think he is probably not with us anymore, but I have no evidence to support that."
Watson also said that bin Laden's al-Qaida network of terrorist training camps had been dismantled but that "there is no question in my mind ... we will be attacked again."
The terrorist "fleas" infesting the country "want to kill you," Watson said. "They could be in your neighborhood."
He said the government was committed to sharing information with the public when the FBI had specific information of a terrorist threat.
COMMENTS TAKE OFFICIALS BY SURPRISE
Watson, who rarely makes public appearances, is the top official for counterterrorism and counterintelligence in the FBI. He did not elaborate on his comments about bin Laden and rushed away from reporters after he spoke.
Some Justice Department and other U.S. officials said they were surprised by Watson's comments. They said the Bush administration's position remained that bin Laden's whereabouts and status were unknown. Other FBI officials would not comment.
Watson joined the FBI as a special agent in 1978. In June 1996 he joined the CIA for several months, working as a deputy to the head of the intelligence agency's counterterrorism center. He returned to the FBI in January 1997 to take charge of international terrorism affairs, and in 1999 he was named director of the agency's Counterterrorism Division.
Since December, reports of bin Laden's well-being have been sporadic and from different sources.
This month, a London-based Arabic newspaper said bin Laden was wounded in a U.S. bombing raid in Afghanistan last year but was in good health.
There was no way to verify the report in London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi. U.S. officials say they have no evidence that bin Laden was wounded in the U.S. bombing of al-Qaida hide-outs in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, late last year, but they acknowledge it is a possibility.
The newspaper's editor said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press that bin Laden had surgery to remove shrapnel from his left shoulder.
Saturday, the head of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service was quoted as saying bin Laden was alive and hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
(China Daily July 18, 2002)