Sen. John McCain (Courtesy Providence Journal)

GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain knocked President Bush for failing to capture Osama bin Laden despite “opportunities over the past six years, and vowed to “get” the terrorist kingpin if voters put him in the White House.

“I will get Osama bin Laden,” McCain told a crowd of supporters at a New Hampshire town hall meeting Saturday – even if it takes following him “to the gates of hell.”

“I want to assure you of that as president of the United States,” he said.

On Sunday, McCain repeated the promise in an interview with NBC News anchor Tim Russert.

“I’ll get him,” he said on “Meet the Press.”

Asked what he would do differently than Bush, McCain replied, “Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have passed up some of the opportunities we passed up, such as Tora Bora.”

By most accounts, bin Laden escaped from the Afghan mountain redoubt in December 2001 and is still at large. How he got away, however, is still in dispute.

The White House denies U.S. forces ever had America’s Enemy No. 1 cornered in Tora Bora. Former CentCom Commander Gen. Tommy Franks says it’s not even clear he was there at the time.

“We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001,” Franks said. “Mr. bin Laden was never within our grasp.”

But two CIA officers who were on the ground in Afghanistan at the time argue that military brass did in fact know he was there – and did little to snatch him. A senior CIA official who briefed the president about the Afghan operations backs them up.

In addition, former CIA Director George Tenet recently confirmed that bin Laden was holed up at Tora Bora at the time.

“Was Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora?” CBS correspondent Scott Pelley last year asked George Tenet in a “60 Minutes” interview.

“We believe that he was,” Tenet replied.

Gary Berntsen, the key CIA field commander on the ground near Tora Bora at the time, says he requested 800 American army rangers to prevent bin Laden’s escape. The request was denied by Franks, he claims, who argued U.S. troops were not necessary, because a local Afghan militia had been hired to fight in their place.

In his book, “Jawbreaker,” Berntsen contests claims by Franks and the White House that bin Laden wasn’t at Tora Bora.

“He was there,” he said, “and could have been caught.”

Berntsen said bin Laden escaped with the help of paid Afghan proxy fighters, as well as Pakistani agents.

“They were happy to take our money and let al-Qaida slip away,” said Bernsten, who says he made it clear in his reports back to Washington that the locals weren’t interested in going after bin Laden in Tora Bora or blocking escape routes leading across the border into Pakistan.

The U.S. National Intelligence director last year testified bin Laden is now operating from a “secure hideout” inside Pakistan, which the White House says is a key ally in the war on terror. Efforts to pinpoint his whereabouts and capture him have proved fruitless.

“I know how to get him – and I’ll get him,” McCain, a decorated military veteran, said during Sunday’s GOP presidential debate hosted by Fox News. He offered no details.

The National Intelligence Estimate says al-Qaida’s high command has managed to set up several new terror-training camps inside Pakistan. Other intelligence reports say the terror group has exported from Pakistan suicide attackers – including the London bombers – to hit targets in the West.

Bernsten’s account is corroborated by former CIA official Hank Crumpton, who personally briefed Bush, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney and Franks, about the need to go after bin Laden in Tora Bora at the time.

Crumpton, who led the CIA’s Afghan campaign in 2001, was in constant contact with Franks. Just weeks before bin Laden escaped, he strongly urged the general to move Marines to the cave complex in Tora Bora, complaining the “the back door was open” for escape into nearby Pakistan. Franks balked, however.

Crumpton then turned to the commander-in-chief and tried a more direct appeal.

“We’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful,” he told Bush.

Cheney also attended the meeting, according to Ron Suskind, author of the “One Percent Doctrine.”

But Crumpton’s pleas fell on deaf ears. No troops were redeployed to the area.

Gary C. Schroen, the CIA field officer in charge of the initial CIA operation in Afghanistan after 9/11, also rejects the administration’s official line.

Author of “First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan,” he appeared on “Meet the Press” in 2005 to tell his side of the story. Here is the relevant portion of that interview:

TIM RUSSERT: In October 2004, General Tommy Franks offered this observation: “We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001. Mr. bin Laden was never within our grasp.” You just disagree with that?

SCHROEN: I absolutely do, yes.

RUSSERT: And President Bush and Vice President Cheney all quoted General Franks saying “We don’t know if bin Laden was at Tora Bora.” You have no doubt?

SCHROEN: I have no doubt that he was there.

Franks, a presidential Medal of Freedom award recipient, is sticking to his story.

“We don’t know whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora,” he told the New York Times. He was “never within our grasp.”

However, Franks reveals in his own memoir that he briefed the president in December 2001 about “unconfirmed reports that Osama has been seen in the White Mountains … the Tora Bora area.”

And in mid-December 2001, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, told reporters that there had been “indicators” of bin Laden’s presence at Tora Bora in early December.

Moreover, the Associated Press, through a Freedom of Information Act request, recently uncovered a U.S. government document that describes how one of bin Laden’s commanders now held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “assisted in the escape of Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora.”

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – who balked at requests to put more troops on the ground in Afghanistan as well as Iraq – maintains that he didn’t “know of any evidence” that bin Laden “was in Tora Bora at the time, or that he left Tora Bora at the time.”

He acknowledged under questioning before the 9/11 Commission that he did not deploy Special Forces to hunt down al-Qaida leaders in the White Mountains, including Tora Bora, explaining that the war was “not about al-Qaida.”

Cheney, for his part, has insisted “it was not at all certain that bin Laden was in Tora Bora.” For all anybody knew, “he might have been in Kashmir,”
near India, the vice president maintained.

During the 2004 presidential debates, Bush strenuously objected to suggestions by Democratic opponent Sen. John Kerry that he had lost bin Laden at Tora Bora because he outsourced the hunt to Afghan tribal leaders.

“My opponent tonight continued to say things he knows are not true,” Bush said following their final debate. “It is especially shameful in the light of a new tape from America’s enemy,” which was a reference to the surprise release of a videotaped message from bin Laden, whom many had written off for dead.

Just weeks after bin Laden slipped into Pakistan in early December 2001, Bush assured the press at his Crawford, Texas, ranch that “he is not escaping us.” He would later add: “I truly am not that concerned about him.”

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” McCain complained that bin Laden has been able to release two messages to foot soldiers within just the past two weeks.

“He’s recruiting, motivating and instructing” them,” he said.

Bin Laden is a “continuing threat to America,” said McCain. “He isn’t just holed up somewhere.”

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