WASHINGTON (Reuters) - How long might it really take to find al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden? U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggests the FBI's 17-year hunt for convicted Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski as a reasonable guide.
Or worse still, Gates said on Wednesday, consider the fate of Americans taken hostage decades ago in Lebanon who died before the United States could find and rescue them.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Gates dismissed the notion that something might be amiss because bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri, remain free more than seven years after the September 11 attacks.
"To a certain extent, I think too many people go to too many movies. Finding these guys is really hard, and especially if they have some kind of a support network," he said.
Bin Laden and Zawahri, widely blamed in the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington that prompted the U.S. war on terrorism, are believed hiding in the rugged terrain along Afghanistan's mountainous border with Pakistan.
Failure to track down the two men haunted the presidency of George W. Bush, despite his 2001 vow to "smoke them out" of hiding.
But Gates drew a historical parallel between bin Laden's hide-out and the mountain cabin in Montana where federal agents found Kaczynski in 1995, after he had killed three people and injured 23 others in a bombing campaign that began in 1978.
"Look at how long it took ... years and years -- in the United States," the U.S. defense chief said.
"We never did find our hostages in Beirut despite all of the efforts of the American government," he added. "So this is a lot harder than it looks."
The United States in recent months has stepped up efforts to attack al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas with missile strikes from unmanned drones operated by the CIA.
"We've done some serious damage to al Qaeda over the last number of months," Gates, a former CIA director, said without confirming any missile attacks against al Qaeda targets.
"Everybody continues to look for No. 1 and No. 2. And we will continue that effort and I think everyone's hope is that one of these days, we'll be successful," he said.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)