It took eight months for them to do it but the Bush White House finally denied on Wednesday that the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden has been downgraded after the CIA disbanded a unit set up in the 1990s to oversee the search for the al Qaeda leader.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada had cited the disbanding of the CIA unit as an example of what he called misplaced priorities in the Bush administration. The unit was disbanded late last year.

Democrats are trying to raise questions about President George W. Bush’s national security policies in a bid to overturn Republican control of the U.S. Congress in November elections.

White House spokesman Tony Snow opened his daily briefing with a statement addressing Reid’s charges, saying the CIA had reshaped the unit to deal with a more diffuse threat from al Qaeda.

“But the notion that the president has shut down a program designed to capture Osama bin Laden is utterly without foundation. It was a reorganization, not a reduction in effort and commitment,” Snow said.

The disbanding of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, code-named Alec Station, was described as a “reallocation of resources” within the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center when the news broke about it in early July.

“The CIA’s efforts to locate bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda figures has not been downgraded. To the contrary, it remains fully committed to locating bin Laden and his collaborators and is devoting more resources, not less, toward the effort,” Snow said.

Bush had vowed to get bin Laden “dead or alive” after the September 11 attacks but as the hunt dragged on, he described bin Laden as only one part of a global terrorist organization.

The Islamic militant leader and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, who are widely believed to be hiding in Pakistan’s remote tribal region bordering Afghanistan, have issued about a dozen audio and video tapes this year.

© Reuters 2006