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Remarks by Secretary Panetta at the 9/11 10th Anniversary Summit at the Newseum, Washington, D.C.

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
September 08, 2011

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Thank you very much. Thank you for the kind introduction. Thank you for the opportunity to be able to speak to you this evening at this 9/11 10th anniversary summit. This is obviously a busy night, between 9/11 events, the president's speech and the opening of the NFL season.

            I know that, you know, you've been fed, you're going to get your dessert. I really urge you to please continue to enjoy your meal. As an Italian, I'm used to speaking to people while they eat, so please continue to enjoy your meal.

            This gathering includes a lot of friends and individuals that I've worked with and it includes the lives of people who have forever been impacted by the attack on 9/11. And it also includes those who played a very key role in demonstrating our nation's determination to recover, to respond and to make certain that the kind of violence, the kind of vicious attack that we experienced on 9/11 would never happen again.

            In particular, I'd like to recognize my good friend Congressman Lee Hamilton and Governor Tom Kean and the others in attendance who were part of the 9/11 commission for the great work that they have done.

            We also have with us 9/11 family members whose courage and determination to honor the victims of the attacks moved this country and showed the world the strength of the American character.

            And finally, we have my Canadian counterpart, Minister of National Defense Peter MacKay, and representatives from the community of Gander, Newfoundland, a town, as all of us know, that provided comfort and welcome to over 6,000 passengers and crew members from diverted trans-Atlantic flights that were not allowed to enter the U.S. airspace. Canada is a true neighbor in every sense of the word, and particularly after that event.

            So many individuals and organizations, I know, have played a role in putting together this event, including the Voices of September 11th and the Community and Regional Resilience Institute. But it gives me particular pleasure to see the Center for National Policy play a role here. I had the honor of serving as chair of the center from 2000 to 2002 and continued as the national advisory board chair until I re-entered the government in -- whenever the hell it was. Seems like I've never left. Another organization with which I have long-standing ties that I know also played a role here is the Meridian Institute, and I want to thank them for their role in helping to build and develop this program as well.

            As you know, today's summit focused on remembrance, renewal and resilience, and these are timeless themes in America and in American history. We have overcome wars, we've overcome disasters, we've overcome economic depressions, recessions, we've overcome crises of every kind, because of the fundamental American spirit that never, never gives up.

            As the nation comes together this weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, in commemorations large and small, we will remember the victims and their families.

            But we will also celebrate the great American spirit that we have shown the world throughout history, from the beginnings of this country, from establishing this great nation, to our determined response to the worst terrorist attack in our history.

            As we approach this 10th anniversary, all of us here tonight can recall that horrible moment when the tragedy struck. Let me share with you my own memories that are seared into my heart and into my mind. I was in Washington, here in this town. Although I wasn't in government at the time, I had come back to Washington to brief members of Congress at the Capitol on oceans issues. I was chairman of an oceans commission, and we were briefing them on some of the findings of our commission. A fellow member of mine on the commission leaned over to me and said that she had just received a message from her New York office that the trade towers had been attacked by terrorists. I shared that with the members of Congress at that moment.

            All of them obviously shared the shock that we all felt from the news, and there was kind of a spontaneous decision that we should all leave the Capitol. And we did. The members left, and I got into a car and was driving away when I heard that another plane had gone into the Pentagon.

            Like the rest of the country, I would learn later that it was likely that the terrorists onboard Flight 93 had intended to hit the Capitol building as well. But the heroic passengers onboard that fateful flight above Pennsylvania rose up and took out the terrorists, sacrificing their lives in order to preserve that great symbol of our democracy.

            Like thousands of others, I was stuck here in Washington for a number of days. But finally I was able to rent a car and drive across the country to try to get back to California. It was a drive I will never forget, not only because I made it back in record time, but more importantly because of what I witnessed across this nation as I was driving back to California. Communities throughout the heartland of America had come together, were posting signs on storefronts, in front of motels: "God bless America." They were raising flags. They were gathering in churches. They were holding hands. You could sense that great spirit of America reacting to the tragedy that had happened.

            And out of that terrible tragedy, I suddenly recalled the statement that Admiral Yamamoto made following the attack on Pearl Harbor, when he looked at his subordinates and said that "I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant." 9/11 awoke a sleeping giant.

            And we will forever -- forever -- remember that defining moment of American history. Al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 victims -- victims who were innocent men, women and children who were going about their daily lives. They perished because of a hatred that was aimed squarely at the values that this nation stands for: liberty, tolerance, equality, fairness.

            But out of that tragedy our nation drew tremendous inspiration, a resolve and determination to honor the victims, uphold our values and defend our country so that no such attack would ever happen again. We showed the world what the American character is all about, and we answered the enemy by acting justly and decisively in pursuing threats to our people, to our freedom and to our nation.

            September 11th reminds all of us that this country is always at its best when it responds to crisis, because it is truly in the inherent spirit of the American people to pull together, to fight for our values, to protect what is dear to all of us. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Americans were compelled to serve their fellow citizens and communities. Millions stepped forward to commit themselves to the hard work of keeping America safe. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the first responders, of law enforcement, the intelligence community, diplomats, men and women of our armed forces, our country has been kept free, safe and secure.

            It's been a great honor to lead many of these dedicated individuals on the vital mission of protecting our country, first as director of the CIA and now as secretary of defense. The proudest experience of my life -- 40 years that I've spent here in Washington -- the proudest experience of my life was working on the operation that finally brought bin Laden to justice. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you.

            Our military and intelligence officials spent years relentlessly trying to pursue al-Qaida's leadership. And even though most of the trails to bin Laden had run into dead ends, they continued, and continued and continued to pursue every possible lead.

            We finally got a breakthrough last summer when they were able to identify and track a courier that had worked for bin Laden to the compound in Abbottabad. And after months of additional surveillance and painstaking work, we were never able to positively identify that bin Laden was in fact located in that compound, but we knew that we had the best evidence on his location since Tora Bora.

            To be sure, there were huge risks that were involved in this operation. We were going 150 miles into Pakistan. What if the operation was discovered? What if a helicopter went down? What if there was a firefight on the scene? What if there was no bin Laden?

            But for all of the risks, this was the one chance to get the worst terrorist in our history. I have to say that in the face of all those risks, the president of the United States made perhaps the toughest and most courageous decision that I've seen a president make, which is to proceed with that operation. And that faith in many ways was born out of the extraordinary displays of military skill and precision that we have seen throughout our nation's history -- the skill of our intelligence officers, the skill of our servicemen that were involved in that operation.

            And the end result was certainly the greatest achievement that we have been able to obtain in our war against al-Qaida. But having been in Washington on 9/11, and then having been in the operations room at the CIA when the bin Laden mission was completed, in many ways I felt I had gone full circle and so had the country. From a very tragic event, this country made a powerful and dramatic statement that we would spare no effort to protect our own and that no one attacks America and gets away with it.

            Ten years after 9/11, we are a safer and stronger nation. We have shown the world our resilience, our nation's never-ending capacity to renew itself, to confront crisis and to confront challenges head-on. The terrorists badly misjudged us. They thought they could weaken America, and instead they strengthened America. Our enduring value, our enduring principles remain stronger than ever in the face of their hateful ideology.

            Al-Qaida is facing unprecedented pressure. But make no mistake -- please make no mistake: They remain a real threat. And the hard work of protecting America must go on. We must keep the pressure on. We must be vigilant. And we must keep up the fight.

            Earlier this week I had the opportunity to visit the memorial at New York -- at the World Trade Center in New York City. I can't tell you what a moving experience it was to see that extraordinary monument. But it was all the more special because I was accompanied by five service members who volunteered to serve this country in the aftermath of 9/11. And like millions of others, they chose to put their lives on the line in order to protect their fellow citizens.

            These men and women represent the true strength of this nation. As secretary of defense, I see a lot of weapons of all kinds -- planes, tanks, helicopters, ships, carriers, destroyers -- weapons of all kinds, but the most important weapon we have is the men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line to serve this country. That is at the core strength of what this nation is all about.

            The virtues of service, the virtues of sacrifice, of selflessness to a cause are greater than oneself. They are at the heart and soul of the United States of America. And as we honor the victims of 9/11, we must honor those who have taken on the burden of defending our nation -- our troops, our military families and our veterans. They fight for the American dream, the dream that brought my immigrant parents to this country, the dream that my parents sought of making sure their children had a better life, the dream that drove our American forefathers, and it's the dream that all of us have to make sure that our children have a safer and better life in the future.

            For all those reasons, may God bless all of those heroes, may God bless the values that we honor this evening, and may God bless the American spirit.

            Thank you very much. 

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