WASHINGTON — Armed with a virtual blank check from the Bush administration, the CIA is pouring operatives and money into and around Afghanistan, and has decided to pay a bounty to anyone who helps the agency capture or kill Osama bin Laden, officials said Wednesday.
Within the CIA, the rapid mobilization is called a "surge." Scores of intelligence officers and analysts, apparently including some recalled from retirement, are being dispatched to outposts in Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere.
Such a surge is necessary because the CIA largely dismantled its local networks and operations in Afghanistan after the retreat of Soviet military forces from the country in 1989, and the collapse of communism soon after.
The intelligence agency upgraded its efforts after 1998 in a search for Bin Laden, but it has been unable to penetrate his inner circle and thus has failed to detect his plans or whereabouts.
Although official U.S. policy has barred assassinations since 1976, a senior intelligence official said the agency has spread word that it will reward anyone who helps eliminate Bin Laden. U.S. officials say the Saudi fugitive is the prime suspect behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"I'm sure if someone were to deliver to us evidence of his timely demise, we'd find a way to demonstrate our gratitude," said the official.
Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that America's no-assassination policy has not been abandoned and that its first aim is to capture Bin Laden.
But he added that different standards apply during wartime. "In a state of war, you don't go out and assassinate people," he said. "You take them out."
Goss added that if Bin Laden was "desperate and he was never going to surrender, then it's pretty obvious that he's going to have a demise."
The intelligence official indicated the bounty for Bin Laden might exceed the $5 million that the State Department previously has offered for information leading to his arrest or conviction. Thousands of matchbooks advertising the reward were handed out last year in refugee camps and other sites along the Afghan border.
The State Department offered a separate $5-million reward this week to "individuals providing information" on those responsible for last month's synchronized skyjackings and crashes of four commercial airliners in New York, suburban Washington and Pennsylvania in which about 5,600 people are dead and missing. Protection of identities and family relocation, if necessary, was also offered.
An initial goal of the current CIA campaign, officials said, will be to try to sow dissension in the ranks of the ruling Taliban in hopes of gaining an informant who could help U.S. forces pinpoint and punish Bin Laden and his allies.
Officers also are likely to probe for vulnerable links between Bin's Laden's terrorist network, known as Al Qaeda, and the surrounding population, such as relatives who provide food, medicine and other support.
"They have to get support somewhere," said a former CIA agent with experience in the region. "They probably do have some food stores, but those aren't unlimited."
He said the ongoing bombing campaign, and pending Special Forces operations, may help U.S. intelligence efforts. The war may "move people off the fence," he said, predicting that either fear or money may induce Afghans to cooperate.
"We probably have peripheral information already, and it's a matter of following that information over time," the former official said. "You want to do it right. You don't want to misfire and send them deeper underground."
But the covert campaign will not be easy, especially because the CIA has so few operatives in the region.
Robert Baer, a former CIA officer in the Middle East and Central Asia, warned that collecting reliable intelligence in Afghanistan is as rough as the parched and rocky countryside.
"If you're think you're going to penetrate Bin Laden and the Taliban in a couple of weeks, it isn't possible," Baer said. " . . . It's extremely hostile country. People are suspicious. They're insular. They hate foreigners. A stranger just can't walk up into one of those valleys and say, 'I'm moving here,' because they'll kill him."
Baer said the CIA largely abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet pullout. "Afghanistan was looked at as a basket case. You couldn't send Americans in there to work. . . . You'd have Congress all over you saying why are you sending people to get killed in Afghanistan? That part of the world was written off."
As the CIA gears up for a covert campaign, other U.S. intelligence services have refocused their efforts in support of U.S. military operations, from bombing to search-and-rescue missions, officials said.
They include the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic surveillance and breaks codes, and various Defense Department agencies that provide high-altitude satellite surveillance, detailed mapping and other military intelligence.