Sen. Nelson says bin Laden will be captured within a year

By Jeremy Wallace

Published: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 8:42 p.m.

BRADENTON - U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson predicted Tuesday that the seven-year hunt for terrorism mastermind Osama bin Laden is nearly over.

"Within a year, we will have bin Laden," Nelson declared in a speech to about 200 people at a Manatee Chamber of Commerce event.

Nelson's prediction was surprising because it contradicted recent statements by the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who suggested it could be years before bin Laden is captured. Just three weeks ago, Gates likened the search to the FBI's 17-year hunt for convicted Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

It is unclear on what Nelson based his assertion.

Nelson left the area shortly after his speech.

Repeated requests by the Herald-Tribune to interview the senator were unsuccessful, with Nelson failing to return phone messages.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Nelson is better informed on such matters than most members of Congress. He receives regular classified briefings on issues like the hunt for bin Laden.

Still, intelligence experts said that they doubted Nelson would be privy to information that a capture of bin Laden is imminent.

"Any really solid intelligence would not be in the public domain," said Tom Sanderson, deputy director of the Transnational Threats Project for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

In Bradenton, Nelson went on to repeat a long-held belief among intelligence officials that bin Laden is in the mountainous region along the Afghanistan and Pakistan border. Recent media reports suggest the terrorist leader is hiding out in an area called Chitral.

Since June, the U.S. has launched more than three dozen missile strikes along the border to disrupt al-Qaida.

New CIA Director Leon Panetta has offered no public predictions on capturing bin Laden. Since taking office in February, Panetta has only said that capturing bin Laden is a priority.

Capturing or killing bin Laden would have a major impact on al-Qaida, Sanderson said. He said bin Laden still has a functional role in training and organizing terrorism.

"It would be a very significant blow to al-Qaida," Sanderson said.

During his hourlong address, Nelson also questioned the phasing-out of the NASA space shuttle program in 2010, even though a new space flight vehicle is not ready.

Nelson said that the U.S. would have to catch a ride on a Russian spacecraft to get to the International Space Station that American astronauts have been building.

"That's a ridiculous situation," Nelson said.