Hunt for Osama Over? Obama Steers Clear of Bin Laden References

PHOTO Osama bin Laden has not been mentioned by the Obama administration lately.

Terrorism and the national security agenda continue to define U.S. foreign policy, as they did during the Bush administration. Yet there is one person who is missing from the language of President Obama and his advisers -- Osama bin Laden, the FBI's most-wanted terrorist.

Former President Bush defined his war on terror in light of bin Laden. He famously pronounced in December 2001 that he wanted the al Qaeda mastermind captured "dead or alive."

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So, too, did Obama when he was running for president. In a debate on Oct. 7, 2008, he declared, "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority."

He kept up that strong rhetoric right up to election day.

"I think capturing or killing bin Laden is a critical aspect of stamping out al Qaeda. He is not just a symbol, he's also the operational leader of an organization that is planning attacks against U.S. targets," Obama said on Nov. 2, 2008, just a few days before his victory.

But as a president, Obama has been considerably less eager to make bin Laden the central feature of the fight against terrorism. In an interview with CBS News in January 2009, Obama seemed to lower the bar of the importance of finding bin Laden. His administration's "preference obviously would be to capture or kill him," Obama said, but he added a caveat.

"If we have so tightened the noose that he's in a cave somewhere and can't even communicate with his operatives, then we will meet our goal of protecting America," he said.

Since then, the president has been quite frugal in using bin Laden's name. Even as he explained his decision behind the troop surge in Afghanistan and tried to re-focus efforts on stamping out al Qaeda, Obama has, for the most part, kept bin Laden out of his language.

That, experts say, may not be unwise.

"When you mention bin Laden's name too much, you inadvertently elevate his status to a person larger than it needs to be. [It] fuels al Qaeda's ranks," Rick Nelson, a senior fellow at the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told ABC News. "We don't want to create this organization that has this cult personality. We want to minimize publicity."

Others say the Saudi dissident, whose last tape was released in June, may not still be alive and even if he is, he may not be the leader he once was.

"We don't know whether he is in any way the daily boss of al Qaeda. He is historically the boss and symbolically the boss, but is he the guy who really runs it?" said Pulitzer Prize winner Leslie H. Gelb, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Our intelligence can't answer that question with any confidence. We can keep personalizing it on Osama as Bush was wont to do, but I think Obama is correct to make it [the focus] al Qaeda rather than the person, because it may turn out the guy is dead already."

Hunt for Osama bin Laden Continues

Some conspiracy theorists have said the U.S. government created the most recent bin Laden tapes. Others have dismissed his tapes as fake, but no one has been able to say with certainty if the world's most-wanted terrorist is still alive.

The decision to keep bin Laden out of the national security rhetoric and frame the terrorism war differently is likely deliberate.

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