Osama bin Laden is alive and "putting a lot of energy into his own security," the director of the CIA, General Michael Hayden, said today.
He also claimed, without providing details, that the US intelligence community had disrupted an attack "that would have rivaled the destruction of 9/11." A senior intelligence official said Hayden was referring to the 2006 liquid bomb on airliners plot that was foiled in London.
"American and its friends have taken the fight to the enemy," Gen. Hayden said in a broad roundup of efforts to fight al Qaeda.
"Al Qaeda has suffered serious setbacks, but it is a determined, adaptive enemy unlike any our nation has ever faced," he said.
Without directly referring to the CIA's offensive blitz of unmanned missile attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the CIA boss said the US had successfully isolated the al Qaeda leader bin Laden, referring to him in the present tense.
"He appears to be largely isolated from the day-to-day operations of the organization he leads," Hayden said in a speech delivered to the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Hayden said the failure to kill or capture bin Laden in the seven years since the 9/11 attacks, could be explained by the "rugged and inaccessible" terrain of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and "the fact that bin Laden has worked to avoid detection."
The CIA director provided no other details but it was the first public indication of the intelligence agency's growing effort to narrow the focus of the search for bin Laden and other top terror leaders.
President-elect Barack Obama has not yet decided whether he will ask Hayden to stay on as director. Several of Obama's top advisers feel that while Hayden did a good job stabilizing morale and performance at the CIA following the debacle of the Iraq War, his connections to warrantless surveillance and so-called torture techniques make him unacceptable as the continuing director of the CIA.
"The truth is, we simply don't know what would happen if bin Laden is killed or captured, but I'm willing to bet that it would work in our favor," Hayden said.
Hayden said the deaths of at least six top al Qaeda commanders in Pakistan had kept the terror group "off balance."
Hayden said he wanted to give the incoming administration "as clear a picture as possible of the state of the conflict and the shape of the enemy."
He claimed al Qaeda in Iraq "is on the verge of strategic defeat." But he said the "bleed-out" of al Qaeda veterans from Iraq is now a growing concern.
"Iraq veterans also have been involved in planning attacks in Europe and the United States," Gen. Hayden said.
The good news of success in Iraq against al Qaeda was measured against the terror group's alarming growth in North and East Africa and Yemen, he said in his remarks.
Hayden also took a question about his political future as the head of the agency in an Obama administration after his speech to the Atlantic Council. Hayden said, "I'll let Adm. McConnell, speak for himself…we serve at the pleasure of the President…This is a decision for the President…If asked to stay I would strongly consider it."
Hayden also said, "The DNI is the top intelligence advisor to the President, so there has to be a personal relationship."