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Secretary Panetta Media Availabilities on the One Year Anniversary of the Bin Laden Raid

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
May 01, 2012

Interview with Courtney Kube NBC TV (Pool Producer)

Los Condores Air Base, Chile

Friday, April 27, 2012


            Q:  OK, so it's the one-year anniversary.  Can you express a little bit -- a little bit on that night?  And then also, you know, we've seen this iconic photo with all of these national security leaders.  You weren't there.  Like, tell us a little bit about what you were doing when they were all watching it from the Situation Room.

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Well, it was a -- it was a Title 50 operation.  And under Title 50, the CIA basically takes kind of operational control.  And the operation center for the whole bin Laden raid was out of the CIA headquarters.  We had set up an operations base there, and we had representatives from the -- from special forces, the SEALs.  They were all located there as we were tracking the operation.  So that's where I was located.  I was basically overseeing it, although I have to tell you, as I've said many times, that, you know, the SEALs and the -- and the people who actually were there and hitting the ground, those were the key people.  Admiral McRaven was there in Pakistan -- or in Afghanistan over viewing the team that was going into Pakistan.  And they were really the ones on the ground who were in charge.  They're the ones that deserve the biggest credit.

            Q:  Everyone in the Situation Room was listening to you basically narrate what was going on, right?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Right.

            Q:  So can you sort of walk through it a little bit?  There was that one moment where apparently, it went silent, when the helicopter went down.  Can you walk through a little bit about that, what you were feeling?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, there were, as you can imagine, a number of tense moments going through the operation, just the fact of having those helicopters go in 150 miles into Pakistan and the concern about whether or not they would be detected, and then actually going into the compound when one of the helicopters went down because of the heat coming off the ground.  It was just hotter than anybody had anticipated.  And obviously, that was pretty nerve-wracking.

            But you know, it was nerve-wracking for a lot of us that, you know, were trying to figure out what happens now.  But for -- I have to tell you, for Admiral McRaven and for the SEALs, they just -- they went right to their business and did the operation, and they didn't miss a beat.  And we had -- fortunately, we had a backup helicopter that came in and was able to pick up the people that were there.

            And you know, the next thing was obviously the question about whether or not bin Laden was really there.  We had no specific information that he was actually located there.  All we had was just -- you know, just a lot of circumstantial intelligence and information.  But all of us were kind of holding our breath to find out whether or not he was actually there.  When we got the code word "Geronimo" that that was the case, it was a huge sigh of relief by everybody involved in that.

            And then I think the last moments were trying to get all of the team back to Afghanistan and the concern that, you know, once we had to blow the helicopter and get back on that we would be found out.  And so there was a lot of concern about the ability to get everybody back to Afghanistan.  But we were able to do that, and it was at that point that I think everybody kind of looked at everybody and said, mission accomplished.

            Q:  Was there a cheer or --

            SEC. PANETTA:  Not really.  It was just that we kind of -- we looked at each other, and it was just a great feel of relief, but also a sense that all of the work that had been done by all of those intelligence analysts, by all of the intelligence people working on it, by all of the military special forces, that all of that work had been worthwhile.

            Q:  And you mentioned a point where you heard the "Geronimo," that you -- that they had the target.  But then there was a couple minutes before they said "EKIA," that he was killed.  What happened in those moments?  What was going through your head?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, the -- I mean, the biggest concern was, I think, the way -- the way it was expressed is, we think we heard "Geronimo," but there wasn't, you know, that kind of actual confirmation.  But within a few minutes, they said that they had -- they had KIA with "Geronimo" and confirmed that in fact that had happened.  So that was -- that was the moment when we knew that all of the work that had been done was paying off, not only for the people involved, but for America, because I think the one thing all of us feel pretty good about that were involved in this operation is that as a result of what we did, America is safer.

            Q:  Thank you very much.  Thanks, Mr. Secretary.


Media Availability with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

En Route to Joint Base Andrews

Friday, April 29, 2012


            Q:  OK.  All right.  Well, I'll start.  I guess what I was interested in is, it's been a year since the operation, and could you just talk a little bit about what you think it accomplished and how things have changed over the past year?  And obviously, in terms of -- (inaudible) -- and just other impacts.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, you know, I don't think there is a question that America is safer as a result of the bin Laden operation.  And when you combine that with the -- with the other operations that have taken place that have gone after al-Qaida leadership, I think -- I think it really has weakened al-Qaida as an organization, and certainly it has prevented them from having the command-and-control capability to be able to put together an attack similar to 9/11.

            It doesn't mean -- it doesn't mean that they don't remain a threat.  It doesn't mean that, you know, we somehow don't have the responsibility to keep going after them wherever they -- wherever they are, and we are.  But I do think that, you know, if you stand back and look at the kind of threat that they represented going back to 9/11, that I do believe that this country and both the intelligence and military communities, because of the ability to work much -- much more closely together than I think they ever have in the past, that when you combine all of that together, I really do believe that America's safer.

            Q:  Did it have the impact you thought it would?  More?  Less?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I was -- having been involved in the operations even before we did bin Laden, you know, it was clear that there's no -- there's no kind of silver bullet here to suddenly being able to destroy al-Qaida, and that includes even going after bin Laden.  But the way this works is that the more successful we are at taking down those who represent their spiritual and ideological leadership, the greater our ability to weaken their -- their threat to this country and to other countries.

            Q:  Is there anything from the raid that we don’t know that you could tell us now?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I think -- I mean, a lot of the details that are -- out there -- you know, it was a Title 50 operation.  You know, what I was saying when I was interviewed by television, that there were -- there were a kind of series of events that raised a lot of concern as we went through the operation, even though -- even though it was -- you know, I mean it was a well-planned operation.

            And I had a lot of confidence -- I think we all had a lot of confidence in the ability of special forces to conduct the operation, largely because it's the kind of operation they perform a number of times every night in Afghanistan.  But, nevertheless, they're -- you know, just the nature of this operation and obviously the target we were going after, there were -- you know, it -- when -- you know, when the president made the decision, it -- you know, propagates that it's true.  It was a gutsy decision because we really didn't have, you know, absolute confirmation that bin Laden was there.  We were operating on, you know, a lot of circumstantial evidence, the best evidence we've had since Tora Bora.  But it, nevertheless -- it was still a big question mark. 

            So, you know, I guess there were -- there were several things that kind of were, you know, what I would call the fingernail-biting moments.  One was just, you know, the helicopters going into Pakistan.  We had the two meet -- the helicopters going in, plus the back-ups, and the whole -- I mean, when they crossed the border and were going into Pakistan, there was -- there were a lot of tense moments about whether or not they would be detected.  And again, you know, thanks to the skill of the military people that were involved, they had taken very good precautions as to how to be able to do it without hopefully reducing the chances of being detected.  But, nevertheless, when that happened, it was -- it was a tense moment, just to, you know, determine whether or not, we, you know -- and we were -- we were frankly tracking other signals and communications just to see whether or not there was any tip-off.   And that didn't happen. 

            The second was, obviously, going in when the two helicopters arrived at the compound and then the one helicopter lost lift. What had happened was that we had -- we had picked up, you know, from weather reports what the heat conditions were on the ground.  But it turned out that it was hotter than what was being reported or what we had expected, and that created -- that, combined with the walls around the compound, created a situation that reduced the lift on the helicopter, and that's what -- when it lost that and came down, obviously, that was -- that was one of those tense moments.  But, in many ways, that was captured in that White House photo. 

            Q:  That was what was happening in the photo?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think -- I think they knew at that point that -- I mean, I'm -- frankly I'm guessing.  I'm guessing because I wasn't there.

            SEC. PANETTA:  But I -- you know, but I -- but I'd have to assume that that was one of those tense moments that, you know, when we're saying, OK, what's next?  (Chuckles.)  But the SEALs were just remarkable in their ability because I have to --OK, what's next?  And he said, don't worry; he says, we're ready for this.  And they -- the helicopter went down; they immediately went in and continued the operation, and we did have the backup helicopters, which really helped a lot. 

            The third moment was kind of a long period of silence after they went in, not knowing exactly what had happened.  And I think it was about 10, 15 minutes.  (Laughs.)

            MR. LITTLE:  Yeah, it was almost 20 minutes.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah, that's right.  It was close to 20 minutes, you know, and -- (inaudible) -- we knew -- we knew that there were gunshots that had been fired.  But, after that, you know, we just didn't know. 

            And it was at that point that McRaven reported finally they thought they had picked up the code word "Geronimo."  And you know -- but he -- the way he said it, it was, like, you know, we think; it was not, like, it's a done deal.  So we still were weighing in. And then it was within a few minutes of that that they reported that there was KIA -- Geronimo KIA.  And so -- you know, so that was that. 

            And then the -- probably the remaining tense moments were, you know, as everybody got, you know, back in the helicopters and were leaving -- of course, you know, I mean, by that time they had blown the helicopter that was down, and you knew that we had woken up all of Pakistan -- (laughs) --  to the fact that something had happened.  And so the concern was, you know, just exactly, you know, what were -- what were they thinking, and how were they going to respond.  And so there was a -- the concern about could we get back out within any problems.  And so that was -- that -- the moment when they crossed the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan was a moment when we finally knew that the mission has been accomplished and we had, you know, gotten the job done.

            So those are just -- you know, just some of moments that were involved in going through the operation.

            Q:  What was your -- how did you feel?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, actually, we had -- we had some special forces people at the Operations Center at the CIA, and we all kind of -- we all kind of looked at each other, and I -- matter of fact, I have a picture in my office of all of us putting our arms around each other -- that we got the job done.

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