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Who's in charge of hunt for bin Laden?

By Henry Schuster

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."

Fran Townsend
Fran Townsend is an assistant to the president and homeland security advisor. She reports to President Bush on homeland security policy as well as matters related to combating terrorism.
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(CNN) -- One of my bosses asked me a stumper this week. Who, she wanted to know, was the one person in the U.S. government in charge of going after Osama bin Laden and other terrorists?

Good question. And as I discovered, there's no easy answer.

The short answer is no one -- at least not until someone is appointed to the newly created post of national intelligence director and confirmed by the Senate.

The longer answer is what I got when I made a couple of calls. The first one was to an official pretty high up on the food chain in counterterrorism.

If there were such a person in charge, especially at the National Security Council, this official would know about him or her. He says he was quite sure of that. But as he explains it, different agencies have different people or groups assigned to tracking terrorists.

The CIA has its bin Laden group. The military has its unit. The FBI has its folks. That's the way it goes -- all the way through the alphabet soup of agencies.

What about the head of the newly created National Counterterrorism Center?

In the future perhaps. But this group is in the startup phase and pretty much doing what the Terrorist Threat Integration Center had been doing for the past couple of years.

What about someone at the National Security Council?

Not really, was the reply, according to the counterterrorism official. And certainly not someone such as Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism czar who so famously got into it with President Bush and his advisers before and after September 11.

Someone at the NSC might referee between the agencies, my official said, but each agency had its own area of responsibility. And besides, you didn't really want the CIA doing the FBI's job and vice versa from a constitutional standpoint, he says.

The day-to-day hunt for al Qaeda

I got much the same answer from Michael Scheuer, who wrote the best seller "Imperial Hubris" under the name Anonymous while working at the CIA.

"Frankly when I resigned in November, there wasn't anyone," Scheuer says, adding that he doubts anything has changed.

Scheuer used to be head of the bin Laden unit at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center (which is different from the newer National Counterterrorism Center), and he says he thinks his successor is the person leading the day-to-day hunt for bin Laden and the rest of al Qaeda's leadership.

And the good news, he says, is that on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, the CIA and U.S. military are working closely together on leads so they can go after high-value targets (that's the lingo for the baddest of the bad guys).

But right now, Scheuer says he believes there's no one in charge at a higher level, such as at the White House. He says the person who comes closest to fitting the job description is Fran Townsend, whose official title is is assistant to the president and homeland security adviser.

Townsend, who previously worked for the National Security Council, has been active, personally inspecting security arrangements at the Athens Olympics, for example.

According to the White House Press Office, Townsend has retained some responsibilities from her previous job dealing with counterterrorism at the NSC. And as an assistant to the president, the White House says that Townsend actually has a much more senior rank than Richard Clarke ever did.

Still the hunt for bin Laden is "a headless horseman," according to Scheuer.

Whoever becomes the first national intelligence director might best fit the job description, he says. Interestingly enough, Townsend told PBS's "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer," that the national intelligence director's role will be advisory, not operational.

The president is said to get a daily update from his briefers on who's been caught and who's on the loose. When he gets good news, he crosses another name off the list.

Would more names be crossed off more quickly if someone were in charge?

Scheuer says he isn't sure. He was not the biggest fan of Clarke as counterterrorism czar and says he thinks it is more important to increase the pool of analysts and intelligence officers fluent in Arabic and knowledgeable about terrorism in the Islamic world.

He says he worries that, if anything, creating new organizations such as the National Counterterrorism Center may dilute the talent pool.

So who's in charge?

Good question.

Update: Who is most dangerous?

I began "Tracking Terror" last week by asking a different question: Who is the more dangerous -- bin Laden or Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

Many of you e-mailed me your thoughts.

Even though al-Zarqawi weighed in this past week with another audio message telling his supporters that the fight in Iraq would be a long one, the consensus from you was that bin Laden was more dangerous.

Some of you say this was because bin Laden's appeal was more widespread and he had positioned himself as a quasi-religious leader. Others say that al-Zarqawi was more dangerous because of his daily impact in Iraq.

Don't forget to e-mail your comments to

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