Challenges of Hunting Bin Laden

Every available American satellite and high-tech listening device is focused on Afghanistan, seeking what the United States has never had with Osama bin Laden, what it calls "eyes on target."

"We're using very high-tech methods to look at a very low-tech country," said Dwayne Day, a leading authority on satellite technology.

"'Eyes on target' means you see the person you're going after and you know they're there," said author Mark Bowden.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack or a needle in a football field," says Tom Carew, a former British special forces commando who led secret missions into Afghanistan.

In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies have not even had "ears on target" — the ability to monitor bin Laden's communications — for at least a year.

"Bin Laden was able to determine that we knew he was using cell phones and satellite technology to communicate with his subordinates, and once that info became public, he ceased to communicate with his co-workers in that way," said former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Not Like the Movies

So now, it's almost like starting from scratch. It's late in the game to insert spies or special forces, said Carew.

"You're gonna have a lot of problems. You're gonna get bogged down there. It's full of holes, they'll shoot and scoot, they'll engage you and they'll go. You'll never be able to dictate the terms or to firefight to them. They will dictate it to you. They'll engage you when you least expect it and vaporize again," he said.

It's a sobering reality for Americans who may think the world of author Tom Clancy and movies like Patriot Games are real.

"What you see in the movies, when they're pointing a satellite down at a terrorist training camp and trying to figure out what's going on … when you see the live images of commandos running around on the ground shooting people and being relayed back to Washington in real time, that's really not how things work," said Day.

Day said American intelligence officials trying to find bin Laden with satellites wish they had what Hollywood has created for movies like Mission Impossible 2.

"Anytime you see a movie where the satellite acts like the Goodyear blimp, where it just hovers and takes pictures, you're watching fantasy — things just don't work like that in real life. You don't get moving images from space," he said.

"Enemy of the State is a great paranoid thriller, it's a lot of fun, but when they have all these scenes where you have those techno-nerds sitting in some office in Washington and they're directing satellites. That's just crazy — things don't work like that," said Day.

"The odds of catching Osama bin Laden with a spy satellite are excellent if he's driving around in a limousine with a big target painted on the roof," he said. "If he's hiding, they're not going to see anything. Even if he's standing right out in the dessert looking straight up we're not going to be able to figure out if it's him."

Previous Success

But it's not as if U.S. special forces couldn't do it with enough time. They have, in Colombia, in a case that has great similarities to the hunt for bin Laden, gone after a murderous cocaine kingpin named Pablo Escobar.

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