Did We Miss the Chance to Capture Bin Laden?

This is a partial transcript from On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, March 13, 2002. Click here to order last night's entire transcript.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST:   It's no secret the White House has backed away from specifically mentioning bin Laden as the number-one target in our war on terror.  Is it because the Pentagon dropped the ball on catching bin Laden not once but numerous times?

Joining us is a journalist who wrote a day-by-day account of bin Laden's life on the run for the Christian Science Monitor.  Philip Smucker joins us now from Cairo, Egypt.

Phil, welcome.  And let's start first with November 10th.  Is that a time when Usama bin Laden surfaced?

PHILIP SMUCKER, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR:  Yeah.  Well, he had come to a large gathering there, almost surprising the 1,000 tribal leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan who were both there.  He showed up.  He called for their support.  And after that meeting, he gave out money that was used as a way to grease the wheels for his exit out of Afghanistan into Pakistan.

VAN SUSTEREN:  When you say "there," Phil, where was Usama bin Laden on November 10th?

SMUCKER:  Yeah, this was in Jalalabad, a long-time base for al Qaeda.  It was very important during the fight against the Soviet aggression.  There was a huge Arab community here.  Many of the people there supported bin Laden.  He had his people give money out in late September.

The Taliban intelligence center was the venue for his big luncheon, where he spoke to the tribal leaders and then had his people give out the money.  And then after that, about two days later, they all left in a large convoy, all the Arabs, in the direction of Tora Bora.  And intelligence was available as early as the 22nd of November that bin Laden and his people were there.  In fact, it was available when they went in, but it came to the surface about the 22nd of November, and the American offensive didn't actually even start until early December.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Well, when you say, Phil, that it was known to the 22nd, if he -- if he surfaced on November 10th, then we can't fault anyone for not attempting to nab him or grab him on the 10th, right?  If no one -- if, for instance, the Americans didn't learn about it until the 22nd?

SMUCKER:  No, no.  I think the $30 billion question is, if we're spending this kind of money to fight a military campaign and the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military has said -- made these very specific statements, "Dead or alive" -- if bin Laden is in a mountain enclave and we can't use the most powerful military in the world to get him, there is a shortcoming.  There's a problem here.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Well, what is the problem, Phil, in your mind, as to why, if he's there in those mountains, that we can't get him?

SMUCKER:  Well, put it this way, Greta.  He was there in Tora Bora, a specific location where we could have honed in on him and we could have surrounded him.  And that was an opportunity, probably a golden opportunity, that was fumbled.  Now, where he is now is really a matter of speculation.  It was a lost opportunity, and it becomes much more difficult now, after the fact, to find him.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Why do you think it was fumbled?

SMUCKER:  Well, I think the intelligence was available that he was there.  I think it was a small mountain enclave, contrary to what was stated by a lot of people in the Pentagon.  I think that the area that he was located in was a very small valley in Tora Bora and that it could have easily been surrounded by light infantry.

We have the most powerful airlift capabilities in the world, the U.S. military.  We could have put down airlift capability, put down infantry, light infantry all in those mountains, the same way we've done, by the way, in the Operation Anaconda, which is ongoing right now.  The tactics have changed drastically since Tora Bora.  There's a whole new war being fought.  At the time of Tora Bora, we were using just a small number of special forces, and they were working with the Afghans, who were betraying us at the same time we were using them.

VAN SUSTEREN:  So how do you know this, Phil?  I mean, how have you -- how have you come to learn that -- all these missed opportunities to get Usama bin Laden?

SMUCKER:  Well, I think we've documented it step by step through the stages when we should have known where he was, the opportunities, in a military sense.  And I think -- I have several friends at West Point who would agree with me that the tactics on the ground were flawed.

So if you look at it in a bigger perspective and the fact that we're spending $30 billion to fight a war, we probably should have had him.  You mentioned earlier that Bush has backed down from his basic statement of "Dead or alive" now.  But in that same evening after the funeral, he said, "There is no cave deep enough for Usama to hide in."

So what is it?  I mean, where does he stand on this?  Does he want Usama bin Laden?  Does the American public want Usama bin Laden?  Or maybe we're aggrandizing one man too much.  Maybe he's only one of ten members on a board of directors.  But anyway, the president made that statement, "Dead or alive," and so one wonders whether this will be followed through with.

VAN SUSTEREN:  All right, in the 10 seconds we have left, Phil -- is he, in your opinion -- bin Laden -- dead now, or is he alive?

SMUCKER:  Well, I'd have to say, Greta, that he's probably alive and that, in fact, the Pentagon has said that he's probably moving between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I suppose they mean with one foot in Pakistan and the other in Afghanistan.  And now that's to the best of their knowledge...

VAN SUSTEREN:  Thank you...

SMUCKER:  ... and I claim to have no better knowledge than they do.

VAN SUSTEREN:  All right, Phil, thank you very much for joining us.

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