WASHINGTON – Usama bin Laden may or may not be alive, but whoever released an audiotape attributed to the international terror mastermind is "putting the world on notice yet again that we're at war," President Bush said Wednesday.
U.S. counterterrorism officials believe the audiotape aired Tuesday on the Al-Jazeera television network is probably authentic, and they are treating it as evidence the Al Qaeda leader is still alive, a U.S. official familiar with the tape said Wednesday.
The Al-Jazeera journalist who obtained the tape said it was delivered to him in Pakistan.
Officials told Fox News that experts are conducting "voiceprint analysis" to compare the new tape with previously recorded statements from bin Laden, and "it won't be long now" before they can say without question whether it is his voice.
"It is leaning that way, but we are taking our time and making sure. This is a big deal," one official told Fox News. Officials said the voice identification technique is almost flawless.
U.S. officials told Fox News they could definitively say two things: One that the recording was passed over a telephone line at some point — and that it is believed to have been made within the last two weeks.
The testing has been taking place at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md. Spectrogram analysis is being used — computer software that compares this tape with other audio statements known to be bin Laden. The technology is good, but will likely never be able to confirm an "absolute match."
There is a real concern in the intelligence community that this tape could signal another wave of Al Qaeda attacks — U.S. officials say the "chatter" about Al Qaeda action has been as much or more than what they heard prior to 9/11.
Counterterrorism officials also were seeking clues from the tape about the terrorist chief's whereabouts and his intentions to strike America and its allies as the CIA and National Security Agency conducted a technical analysis of the tape aimed at further authenticating it.
Bush said he was taking the message "very seriously."
The president bristled when asked if bin Laden should have been captured sooner by U.S. and coalition forces. "We're making great progress in the war on terror. Slowly, but surely, we are dismantling the terrorist network," he said.
Many intelligence analysts have concluded the audiotape almost certainly was made by bin Laden, said a senior law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Other U.S. officials were more conservative, saying it probably came from bin Laden.
"They can't get to 100 percent certainty, but they're sure," the law enforcement official said. "He's alive. We have to work on that assumption, and we are."
The official, who participated in a high-level briefing by CIA and NSA officials, said analysts are now trying to determine whether bin Laden placed cryptic messages in the recording to order followers into action.
The tape, if validated, would be the first confirmation in a year that bin Laden is alive.
The speaker on the tape sounds undeterred by the loss of bin Laden's home in the Taliban's Afghanistan or by the death and capture of several of his closest lieutenants.
"Why should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning and widowing continue to be our lot, while security, stability and happiness be your lot? This is unfair. It is time we get even," he says, sounding as if he is reading.
The message, aired Tuesday on the al-Jazeera Arabic television network, appears aimed at both Westerners and Al Qaeda loyalists, U.S. officials said.
"Assuming it is in fact authentic, it is an effort to boost morale among the rank and file," said one official familiar with the tape, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It is an effort to show members of Al Qaeda that the top leadership is still around. It could also signal future attacks."
The recording appears to have been made sometime in the past two weeks. The speaker appears to refer to the Oct. 28 shooting death of a U.S. diplomat in Amman, Jordan. U.S. officials don't know if Al Qaeda conducted that attack. The speaker also praises the bombing in Bali, Indonesia, last month, that left close 200 people dead.
He also takes on issues that resonate in the Islamic world — the U.S. threat of war in Iraq and the ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians. He threatens six U.S. allies: Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Australia.
U.S. officials also noted that the tape mentions three top Bush administration officials by name: Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"It personalizes things to a degree we hadn't seen before," one official said.
Officials suggested bin Laden would deliver his message by audio, rather than video, because an audio tape gives fewer clues to its origins. It also conceals any potential changes in bin Laden's appearance — either from injuries, illness or efforts at disguise.
Other experts who reviewed the audio message said they believed it came from bin Laden.
"He's more tired and aged," said George Michael, an independent analyst who has examined other bin Laden tapes for the government. "The speech is very well written. It's built on an old message from Prophet Muhammad to governors of the world, giving them a choice to join Muhammad or not."
U.S. defense officials said they hope backtracking the tape's trail will lead to new information about bin Laden's whereabouts. Al-Jazeera reporter Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan said he received the recording in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, from an agent of the Al Qaeda leader.
Counterterrorism officials have said that if bin Laden is alive, they believe he is probably in a remote, mountainous area of Pakistan along the country's border with Afghanistan. American officials have never confirmed rumors that bin Laden was wounded or suffering some kind of kidney ailment.
There was no change Wednesday in the national threat alert status, which remains at code yellow — the midway point on a scale of five threat levels. This reflects a lack of specific information about impending attacks, officials said.
"We've had increased chatter," said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I think we'd better be watching for the next hit, probably in a soft place."
Attorney General John Ashcroft said special attention is being paid to "what might be signaled" on the tape.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said the existence of the tape "does and should put us on greater alert."
"There may be individuals in the United States we do not know about who could commit attacks," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.