WASHINGTON - Commanders in the U.S. military's most elite Special Operations unit are contending that their troops should be freed from the fruitless hunt in Afghanistan for Osama bin Laden, military and intelligence officials say.
Some senior officers in the Joint Special Operations Command have concluded that bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, was probably killed in the U.S. bombing raid at Tora Bora in December, officials said.
They believe he died in a bombing raid on one of several caves that had been targeted because U.S. intelligence officials thought they housed al-Qaida leaders.
Yet the Special Operations leaders lack hard forensic evidence that would prove bin Laden is dead and acknowledge their conclusions are deductive, drawn partly from the lack of recent confirmed sightings or radio intercepts indicating he is still alive, officials say.
Other military and intelligence officials have sharply disagreed with their assessment, and the analysis by some commanders of the Joint Special Operations Command does not represent a consensus of all Special Operations forces leaders, military officials said.
The analysis concerning bin Laden's fate plays into a deepening debate among Special Operations leaders about how best to use the military's super-secret counter-terrorism forces.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is pushing for an expanded use of Special Operations units beyond Afghanistan to kill or capture terrorists.
As a result, Special Operations leaders are trying to determine whether the hunt for the elusive al-Qaida leader is still the best use of the limited resources of the most elite units.
At least publicly, President Bush and Rumsfeld have said they do not know whether bin Laden is alive or dead.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, said last week that he had not seen "convincing proof" that bin Laden had been killed. But Franks added that he did not know bin Laden's fate.
U.S. intelligence agencies have received reports from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region claiming to have information that bin Laden is alive.
Still, the assessment suggesting he is dead comes from the commanders of the elite military units responsible for counter-terrorism, which have been on the front lines of the hunt for bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan.
They are so respected that senior intelligence and law enforcement officials elsewhere have been briefed on the assessment, leading to more debate on whether bin Laden is dead.
Despite the argument raging within the Special Operations ranks over bin Laden, U.S. and allied ground troops - including the elite commandos - continue to scour Afghanistan, searching for al-Qaida fighters and clues about bin Laden.
Barring conclusive evidence that bin Laden is dead, the military's default position is to assume he is still alive and to keep hunting for him. Yet Special Operations forces are increasingly frustrated by how little they have to show for their efforts.
In the late spring or early summer, a meeting of Special Operations leaders was held to discuss how to allocate Special Operations resources, officials said. At that meeting, some senior commanders told their colleagues that they believed bin Laden was dead, officials familiar with the meeting said.
The meeting's focus pivoted to implications of that assessment, an officer said.
Officials at other intelligence agencies said they were familiar with the assessment that bin Laden was dead, indicating that the unit's views have circulated widely among the government's counter-terrorism experts.