Panetta Discusses Defense Issues on ‘60 Minutes’
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2012 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called his role in taking down Osama bin Laden a high point in his career, but also shared his belief that someone in the Pakistani government knew of the al-Qaida leader’s whereabouts before the raid during an interview that aired last night on CBS’ "60 Minutes."
“In the 40 years I’ve been in government, this, for me, was probably the most remarkable operation that I was a part of, because everybody played their role in a very effective and responsible way,” Panetta told Scott Pelley during the far-ranging interview.
Panetta, who was CIA director when the May 2, 2011, raid took place, said he recognized the high stakes of the mission while advocating it to President Barack Obama.
“The risks were enormous: going in that far, the prospect of detection, the prospect that … one of these helicopters might go down, the fact that once [Navy SEAL Team 6] arrived there, we might … have a shooting war with the Pakistanis take place,” Panetta said.
But the secretary added that available intelligence convinced him it was time to act.
“This was the best case we had on bin Laden since Tora Bora,” he said. That area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was where the United States had its last good lead on bin Laden in 2001.
“And because of that -- because for 10 years we had run into dead ends trying to track bin Laden down -- I thought for that reason alone, we had a responsibility to act,” Panetta said.
Asked why he chose not to inform the Pakistani government in advance, Panetta acknowledged his belief that it could have compromised the plan.
“I personally have always felt that somebody [within the Pakistani government] must have had some sense of what was happening at his compound,” about a mile from Pakistan’s military academy, Panetta told Pelley. “Don’t forget, this compound had 18-foot walls around it -- 12-foot walls in some areas, 18-foot walls elsewhere -- [and] a seven-foot wall on the third balcony of the house. It was the largest compound in the area. So you would have thought that somebody would have asked the question, ‘What the hell’s going on there?’”
In fact, he said, surveillance before the raid showed Pakistani military helicopters flying over the compound. “And for that reason, it concerned us that, if we, in fact, brought [the Pakistani government] into it, that they might … give bin Laden a heads up,” he said.
The secretary emphasized that he doesn’t have any hard evidence that the Pakistani government knew bin Laden’s location. “So I can’t say it for a fact,” he said.
“There’s nothing that proves the case,” Panetta said. “But, as I said, my personal view is that somebody somewhere probably had that knowledge.”
Meanwhile, Panetta said, the U.S. effort to track down al-Qaida continues.
“Obviously we’re going after al-Qaida, wherever they’re at,” he said. “And clearly, we’re confronting al-Qaida in Pakistan. We’re confronting the nodes of al-Qaida in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa.”
Turning to Iran, Panetta said the United States has made clear that it will do whatever is necessary to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
“That’s a red line for us. And it’s a red line, obviously, for the Israelis, so we share a common goal here,” he said. “If they proceed and we get intelligence that they’re proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it. … There are no options that are off the table.”
Current thinking is that if Iran continues moving forward, “it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb, and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon,” the secretary said.
Panetta also addressed challenges closer to home as he oversees major reductions within the Defense Department budget.
“The reality is that we now are facing, as a result of congressional action, having to take down the defense budget by … well over $450 billion over the next 10 years,” he said. “We’ll have to make some very tough decisions about how we do this.”
But Panetta added that he wants to ensure he doesn’t create a hollow military in the process.
“The last thing I want to do is to make the mistakes of the past,” he said. “We still have to have a military that protects us against a lot of threats that are out there: terrorism, Iran, North Korea, nuclear proliferation, problem of cyber attacks, rising powers like China.”
As difficult as the demands are, Panetta said, the hardest part of his job is knowing that he’s signing the orders that put America’s military men and women in harm’s way, and trying to bring comfort to families of the fallen.
“The toughest thing in this job, frankly, is writing the condolence letters to the parents of those young men and women who are killed in action,” he told Pelley. “And that loss, having been a parent of somebody who has been stationed over there, you know what that means.
“But I also say to them, … ‘Your son or daughter is really a true hero and patriot, because they were willing to give their life for their country. And that means that they’ll never be forgotten,’” Panetta continued. “And I hope that’s some measure of comfort for them -- because, in the end, the only comfort I have is to know that these kids, when they put their lives on the line, are helping America be strong for the future.”