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Rumors Swirl About Bin Laden's Health

Osama bin Laden's health has deteriorated in the past year, forcing him to curtail his movements, according to Arab diplomats in Pakistan who routinely track reports of his movements.

A senior source with an intelligence service friendly to the United States told CBS News that Saudi Intelligence has collected what it considers to be "very credible information" that bin Laden has been very seriously ill, and that the Saudi services are now suggesting, though not confirming, that they "have a pretty high certainty" that he is dead.

The source added that if he has died as a result of typhoid fever, which comes from exposure to contaminated water and food, it would confirm reports that he has been hiding in a remote area, under very harsh conditions with limited access to medical care.

While Pakistani officials and diplomats stationed in the country on Saturday did not confirm a report in a French regional newspaper that claimed the world's most wanted terrorist had died of typhoid earlier this month, some spoke of reports in the past year suggesting that bin Laden's health had rapidly deteriorated, prompting speculation over his remaining life expectancy.

Time Magazine also reported that bin Laden "has become seriously ill and may have already died" from a "water-borne illness."

But U.S. sources are skeptical of the reports. A senior White house official tells CBS News White House correspondent Jim Axelrod, "I wouldn't hold your breath."

When asked at the Saudi Day reception in Washington about reports that Bin Laden had died, the Saudi ambassador to the United States Prince Turki al-Faisal said, "Don't believe everything you hear on the news ... Osama Bin Laden is alive and well."

French President Jacques Chirac said, "The information is in no way whatsoever confirmed and therefore I have no comment on it."

"You should never say 'never,' but the source of the intelligence is not a very good one – Saudi intelligence can sometimes be an oxymoron," Michael Scheuer, who ran the CIA's bin Laden unit, said on the Saturday Early Show. "It almost sounds like between the French and the Saudis are trying to goad bin Laden into saying something to prove he is still alive."

Sources in the region near the Afghan-Pakistan border tell CBS News analyst Jere Van Dyk that if bin Laden were dead the West would never know it. They want to preserve the idea that Osama is alive because he is a mythical figure, as much as anything else.

One Arab diplomat who spoke to CBS News on the condition that his identity would not be revealed said there were fewer reports in 2006 of bin Laden's possible sightings around the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"In the past, sometimes with a delay of two to three days, you would
see reports which suggested he may be on the move somewhere, there have been fewer such reports this year," he said. "Does this mean, he is acutely ill, dying or has in fact died? There is no credible answer to that question. Unless there is a body, how can anyone say for sure that bin Laden is dead?"

The same diplomat said, bin Laden has had a history of illnesses that were first reported while the Taliban regime still ruled Afghanistan in 2000. One such report seen by the diplomat a year before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, reported that bin Laden had to be hospitalized briefly in Kabul before he was brought to Pakistan for medical treatment, then believed to be a kidney-related ailment.

"If it is true that bin Laden had to have dialysis for his kidneys then — which is six years ago — his health must be far worse now. Especially the conditions that he lived in, being on the run from U.S. forces must also take its toll on him. I wouldn't be surprised if he is dead. Nobody is immortal," concluded the diplomat.

Over the past 12 months, according to security and diplomatic sources in Pakistan and elsewhere, the Saudi services have greatly improved their intelligence gathering capacity, especially in southern Afghanistan, and the Pakistan border region.

The intelligence service source told CBS News that over the past weeks, a number of al Qaeda-linked figures left the Pakistan-Afghanistan region and returned to countries in the Arabian Gulf. Some of the returnees have been interrogated and provided important intelligence.

Another Arab diplomat said reports of bin Laden's death would have to be either confirmed if his body was found or through an official statement for there to be confirmation. "But if you look at just the history of the man, the probability of his survival for long is not that great," the second Arab diplomat said on similar condition of anonymity.

"At the end of the day, if bin Laden is dead, al Qaeda will announce it," Scheuer said on the Saturday Early Show.

CBS News has been told the Saudis themselves have been very careful to say that while they believe the intelligence they have is credible, it will be impossible to confirm bin Laden's death without either recovery of a body, or the arrests of al Qaeda figures and others who are known to have been with him.

One former Pakistani official with prior responsibility for security affairs said there was speculation among Pakistani intelligence officials that al Qaeda had already undergone a leadership transition which has seen Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the group's second highest ranking leader, emerge as the key decision maker.

"If you just track the number of al Qaeda videos which have come out in the public, you see Ayman Al-Zawahiri in there mostly. Does this mean, Osama bin Laden has been in semi-retirement for a while because of his deteriorating health? That's a question which is worth asking" he said.

Pakistani officials expressed complete ignorance of the classified memo published by the French newspaper, L'Est Republicain, circulated to the French President and other senior figures. Written on Sept. 21 by the DGSE, the French exterior intelligence service, the memo reports intelligence gathered by the Saudi services, under the headline "Saudis Moving Towards Conclusion Bin Laden is Dead."

The French government has declined to comment on the contents of the document, but the Minister of Defense has ordered an investigation into the leaking of classified documents.

The newspaper that ran the story is a well-respected regional daily, but the journalist who wrote it, however, is a crime reporter rather than a specialist in intelligence matters, reports CBS News correspondent Elaine Cobbe from Paris.