The CIA says it’s never heard of the report, other counterterror experts say stories about Osama’s health are conflicting, and by best accounts the trail went stone cold years ago. And yet here we are with a dynamite leak, conveniently just a few days after the NYT bombshell about administration paralysis in the search for Bin Laden. I don’t want to say “I question the timing,” but I question the timing:
Now, the CIA has produced a report saying that bin Laden has long-term kidney disease, and may have only months to live, two U.S. officials familiar with the report tell TIME. The agency ostensibly managed to get the names of some of the medications bin Laden is taking, and one U.S. official familiar with the report, which came out between six and nine months ago, says it concluded, “Based on his current pharmaceutical intake [we] would expect that he has no more than six to 18 months to live and impending kidney failure.”
That prognosis, along with some on-the-ground intelligence and a well-aimed Hellfire missile, will get you a dead terrorist leader. Close watchers of the al-Qaeda terror network find such reports inherently unreliable. “It’s trying to make a diagnosis from thousands of miles away with only fragments of the medical chart,” says Paul Pillar, former top analyst and deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, who now teaches at Georgetown University. Says Frances Fragos Townsend, who stepped down last November as chief of President George W. Bush’s Homeland Security Council, “I’ve read all the same conflicting reports [on bin Laden’s health] that people have talked to you about. I never found one set of reporting more persuasive than another.”
The CIA, for its part, is disavowing the claims attributed to the report. “I have found no one here familiar with this alleged report or the analytic line it supposedly conveys,” says Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman. “The fact that anonymous sources attribute views to the CIA is not, by itself, reason to believe the agency actually holds those views,” he says.
Yeah, note that the two sources cited in the piece are identified merely as “U.S. officials,” not CIA. The best recent window onto Osama’s whereabouts that I’ve read is this “Deep Background” post from NBC, which addresses the kidney rumors head on: “He does NOT have kidney failure and does NOT need dialysis. He has had kidney stones. He is also seen as somewhat of a hypochondriac. He is missing a toe, lost in a battle against the Soviets. He reportedly has an enlarged heart and chronically low blood pressure, which he treats with drugs.” Maybe it’s the heart condition that’s responsible for his “pharmaceutical intake”? Exit question: If Bush has known for six to nine months that Bin Laden has only six to 18 months to live, what was he doing in London a few weeks ago asking for help with one last push to kill or capture him before he leaves office? And if the answer to that is that he wants to bring him to justice before death denies him the chance, then what’s with the delay on giving the order for Special Ops to go in as chronicled in the NYT piece?