WASHINGTON — Sen. John F. Kerry caught President Bush off guard during their final debate Wednesday night, asserting that the president once said he was "not concerned" about hunting down Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
In one of the testiest moments of the evening, Bush protested, "I don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. That's kind of one of those exaggerations."
But during a news conference at the White House on March 13, 2002, Bush said something close to what Kerry quoted. "I truly am not that concerned about him," the president said, according to the official White House transcript.
The exchange between Bush and Kerry came during rebuttals to the first question of the debate, when moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked Kerry whether the United States would regain the sense of security it had before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, 'Where's Osama bin Laden?' " Kerry said. "He said, 'I don't know. I don't really think about him very much. I'm not that concerned.' We need a president who stays deadly focused on the real war on terror."
Bush's original comment came while U.S. forces in Afghanistan were searching for the Al Qaeda leader, who had eluded joint American-Afghan military operations designed to find him.
"We haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is," Bush said during the 2002 news conference. "I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run.
"I was concerned about him when he had taken over a country," Bush continued. "I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban. But once we set out the policy and started executing the plan, he became -- we shoved him out more and more on the margins. He has no place to train his Al Qaeda killers anymore."