WASHINGTON -- Osama bin Laden remains public enemy number one, but recent developments raise questions about the ability of US forces to track down the elusive terrorist and the resources dedicated to the hunt more than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Fresh reminders of the unsuccessful search occur as intelligence officials indicated this week that bin Laden has been in contact with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the top Al Qaeda figure in Iraq, enlisting his help in planning attacks inside the United States.
In a rare mention of his name yesterday, President Bush said bin Laden hopes to attack again on US soil and ''stopping him is the greatest challenge of our day."
''We're on a constant hunt for bin Laden. We're keeping the pressure on him, keeping him in hiding," Bush said at a ceremonial swearing-in for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Current and former government officials say there is no doubt that the Bush administration wants bin Laden ''dead or alive," as the president said shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. But skills and dollars may fall short of desire.
Army General John Abizaid, chief of US Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that bin Laden and the Al Qaeda senior leadership have been ''our priority target" since Sept. 11 but added, ''It's important for all of us to know that military forces do best in attacking the network as opposed to looking for a specific person."
President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan said in December that ''the trail has gone cold," and US officials largely agree.
Bin Laden is believed to have evaded capture first during the 2001 battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan and then by hiding along the Afghan-Pakistani border with his top deputy and a circle of supporters protecting him at all costs. Some specialists say they believe he may also be spending time in Pakistani cities.
US personnel, including CIA paramilitary, contractors, and some of the military's highly trained special forces, have been on the hunt. In a recent report, the Congressional Research Service said 18,000 US forces remain in Afghanistan, running down Al Qaeda and the Taliban, joined by thousands of Pakistani forces.
Yet a former intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, wondered about recent decisions concerning US resources. The official said intelligence and military assets were moved from Afghanistan to Iraq for the Jan. 30 elections there, and it is unclear whether they were moved back.
Asked to confirm the shift, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable said, ''As a matter of security, we don't comment on operational matters."
The Pentagon consumes roughly 80 percent of the classified intelligence budget, estimated at $40 billion.
The number two commander in Afghanistan, Major General Eric Olson, recently said he was concerned that US policymakers will seize on an apparent drop in militant attacks to cut coalition troops to ease the pressure on forces stretched by their deployment in Iraq. Olson added that he did not anticipate any letup in the mission to find bin Laden.
Since the late 1990s, the government has debated how best to find the terror leader and what his capture is worth. In the 2001 Patriot Act, lawmakers authorized the State Department, through its Rewards for Justice Program, to pay more than $5 million.
In November, Congress authorized increasing the reward for information leading to bin Laden's killing or capture to $50 million. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has not boosted the reward.
State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said officials are constantly assessing the success of their efforts. ''There are no plans at this time to raise the reward. It is at the discretion of the secretary," he said.
Representative Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, who was behind the most recent rewards legislation, said the department is moving fast -- ''for the normal speed limit at the State Department" -- in its consideration of the November legislation.
James Pavitt, head of the CIA's clandestine service until last summer, said he supports putting anything on the table to find bin Laden. ''That said, for the most part, it is hard for you and me to comprehend what that sort of money is," he said. ''Imagine what it would be for the person in a position to give the tip. Would they be in the position to know the difference between $1 million, $5 million, $10 million?" He added that ''the issue is a network, and it is a network that is more diffuse than it was 3½ years ago."
Meanwhile, bin Laden continues to operate.Within the last several weeks, US officials say, bin Laden has been in contact with Zarqawi, who pledged his loyalty to bin Laden in October.
Yet Vince Cannistraro, former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center, said the message may be good news: ''If you've got to go to Zarqawi to ask him to do operations in the US, that sounds pretty desperate."