It was supposed to be a hearing on global security threats, but a member of the House Armed Services Committee used yesterday's session to grill senior intelligence officials about our inability to locate Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaida's #2 man, Ayman al-Zawihiri.
According to Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz, the officials were questioned by New Jersey Democratic Congressman Robert Andrews, who wanted to know why bin Laden has not been caught in the five years since the 9-11 attacks.
"We share your frustration," Thomas Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence, told Congress yesterday. "Being No. 3 in al Qaeda is a bad job. We regularly get to the No. 3 person."
But capturing or killing bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, has been difficult because their security practices are "very good" and they are hiding in an area "that is more hostile to us than it is to al Qaeda," Mr. Fingar told the Committee.
Fingar also expressed concern about Al Qaida finding a "safe haven" in Europe (which might make it easier for them to enter the U.S.), and predicted that a hasty withdrawal would lead to a "significant increase" in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq. But Mr. Andrews apparently thought it was more important to ask about the bin Laden hunt, which reinforces Democratic talking points about the "unnecessary" war into Iraq, which diverted resources that might have been used to locate the Al Qaida leader.
Congressman Andrews' concerns about the failure to "get" bin Laden and Zawihiri made us wonder about the status of two other, high-profile fugitives. Back in the mid-1990s, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his chief military commander, Ratko Mladic, were charged with war crimes in connection with the shelling of Sarajevo, and the murder of Muslim civilians in the town of Srebrenica. Prosecutors at the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague believe that Karadzic and Mladic are responsible for the deaths of up to 20,000 people, and they remain two of the most-wanted men in the world.
Despite that, the Serb leaders have managed to remain free for more than a decade. Recent reports suggest that Mladic is hiding in Serbia (where he lived openly until 2002), while Karadzic is believed to be in a Serbian-controlled section of neighboring Bosnia. Both men reportedly use disguises and a network of supporters to elude NATO troops, who've been on the hunt for years. Two years ago, the British commander of European peacekeepers in Bosnia suggested that the "net is tightening," a claim that was dismissed by former Clinton Administration official Richard Holbrooke.
"Nets are for fishing expeditions. You don't capture war criminals whether it is Osama bin Laden, Radovan Karadzic or Saddam Hussein by going fishing," Holbrooke told the AP.
The status of the former Serb leaders didn't come up during yesterday's Congressional hearing, and you won't hear Democrats say much about our "failure" to bring Karadzic and Mladic to justice. In fairness, there's no evidence that either is actively plotting against the U.S., so the former Serb officials don't pose much of a threat, unlike Al Qaida's senior leaders. But, on the other hand, we did invest considerable military effort and treasure to get rid of the Bosnia-Serb regime, and later, the government of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. And--at least officially--the United States government remains committed to bringing Serb war criminals to justice, a policy initiated by the Clinton Administration over a decade ago.
But the hunt for Karadzic and Mladic has grown cold, and current efforts seem casual at best. There was a flurry of activity earlier this year, when Karadzic was reportedly sighted in Panama (it turned out to be a Serbian businessman who lives in Canada). There hasn't been a reliable sighting of Mladic in several years, although there were reports of a planned "surrender" last year that never panned out.
And the window for capturing the fugitive Serb leaders is closing. If Karadzic and Mladic aren't in custody when the war crimes tribunal expires in 2010, they can escape prosecution, at least from that court. Given that reality, you might expect that Mr. Andrews and his colleagues would be concerned about the other "big fish" that are getting away.
But don't hold your breath. Thoughts of Karadzic and Mladic bring back some unpleasant memories for several current and former Democratic big-wigs, including Mr. Holbrooke (who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords), and retired General Wesley Clark, who along with Ambassador Holbrooke, personally "negotiated" with both Karadzic and Mladic. During one session, Clark actually exchanged hats with the Bosnian Serb general, touching off a firestorm of criticism. At the direction of President Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, Holbrooke and Clark actively "engaged" the Serbian leaders for several years in the mid-90s, while the atrocities in Bosnia continued.
Then, there's the question of what Karadzic and Mladic might say if they're actually handed over to authorities in the Hague. Milosevic died before he could present his defense in the war crimes tribunal, and there has never been a full disclosure of the talks held between NATO/U.S. officials and the former Bosnia Serb leaders. During his trial, Milosevic tried to "turn the tables" on his accusers (with some success), and Karadzic and Mladic would likely attempt at similar strategy, aimed at embarrassing NATO and various officials. For those reasons alone, there are some Democrats who are satisfied with the status quo, and they won't shed any tears if that 2010 deadline passes with Karadzic and Mladic still on the lam.