I was going to

I was going to call this post, with a touch of drama, The Final Lie.

But who am I kidding? The Bush team has plenty of time to tell lots more lies between now and election day. And they no doubt will. And if, God forbid, the president wins, they’ll have four more years of lie opportunities after that.

Still, this one is significant. So here goes.

In recent weeks John Kerry has been pressing the claim that the US had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora in late 2001 but let him slip the noose in part because we ‘outsourced’ the job to local warlords who had little allegiance to the US and their militiamen who had little incentive to get themselves killed in a battle to the death with a bunch of hardened al Qaida terrorists.

That’s a tough charge for the Bush team. And over the last week they’ve been claiming — by various arguments — that it simply isn’t true.

We have no idea if bin Laden was there at all, they say. And nothing was outsourced.

On Tuesday Gen. Tommy Franks — the former CENTCOM CINC who, remember, is now working as a Bush surrogate — wrote a column in the Times in which he said …

We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001. Some intelligence sources said he was; others indicated he was in Pakistan at the time; still others suggested he was in Kashmir. Tora Bora was teeming with Taliban and Qaeda operatives, many of whom were killed or captured, but Mr. bin Laden was never within our grasp.

As for ‘outsourcing’ Franks says that that’s not true either. We were relying on locals because they knew the terrain so well and they worked in tandem with US special forces and precision air strikes.

Then on Tuesday afternoon Dick Cheney picked up the baton and said Kerry’s claims were “absolute garbage. It’s just not true.” There was “speculation about where Osama bin Laden might have been” there. But no more.

So what’s the story exactly?

I was pretty skeptical of the Bush team’s revisionism on this count since the outlines of the Kerry critique have been a commonplace in national security and counter-terrorism circles for literally years.

Now al Qaida expert Peter Bergen has a new piece up on his site which makes it pretty clear that this new claim is about as factual as most things the Vice President says.

Bergen is CNN’s terrorism analyst, one of the few western reporters ever to interview bin Laden in person, and he goes back to Afghanistan pretty frequently and has interviewed many of the folks who were there.

Bergen notes that at the time — not now that the presidency is on the line, but at the time — a Pentagon official gave a widely-quoted background briefing in which he said that there was a “reasonable certainty” that bin Laden was in fact there, a judgment based on contemporaneous radio intercepts. Bergen also discusses interviews with other witnesses and al Qaida associates that point strongly to the conclusion that he was there. “In short,” says Bergen, “there is plenty of evidence that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, and no evidence indicating that he was anywhere else at the time.”

Bergen also addresses the ‘outsourcing’ issue.

On the basic question of whether the US missed a key opportunity to bag bin Laden in Tora Bora, Bergen says Kerry’s claim is not ‘garbage’ but “an accurate reflection of the historical record.”

It’s always going to be difficult to prove definitively that bin Laden was there at the time in question. But then that’s part of the price of not having caught him. Most evidence points pretty clearly to the conclusion that he was there. And the consensus of experts seems to be that he was. But it’s politically damaging. So the Bush campaign just says it’s not true.