April 30, 2012
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT – America has become a safer place since a Navy SEAL team killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan compound nearly a year ago, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said.
Returning from a weeklong trip to South America to strengthen military ties in Colombia, Brazil and Chile, Panetta, who was director of the CIA on May 2, 2011, when the al-Qaida chieftain met his end, recalled the high-risk mission the Defense Department called Operation Neptune Spear.
“I don’t think there’s any question that America is safer as a result of the bin Laden operation,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him.
“When you combine that with the other operations that have … gone after al-Qaida leadership,” he added, “I think it 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.
But al-Qaida remains a threat, the secretary said.
“It doesn’t mean that we somehow don’t have the responsibility to keep going after them wherever they are — and we are,” he said.
President Barack Obama’s decision to give the bin Laden operation the green light was gutsy, the secretary said, since there wasn’t absolute confirmation that bin Laden was inside the Abbottabad compound.
Officials had based the operation “on a lot of circumstantial evidence,” the secretary said, yet it was the best lead on bin Laden’s whereabouts since 2001.
However, the validity of the evidence, he said, was “still a big question mark.”
Panetta said the operation provided “several fingernail-biting moments” for U.S. officials and military leaders who from Afghanistan, the CIA operations center and the White House were monitoring the raid as it happened.
One of those anxious moments occurred, the secretary said, when the military aircraft used in the operation — two lead helicopters plus backups — entered Pakistani airspace.
“When they crossed the border and were going into Pakistan there were a lot of tense moments about whether or not they would be detected,” Panetta said.
Another nail-biting moment occurred as the helicopters entered the Abbottabad compound and one of them lost lift and had to be left behind and destroyed, Panetta said.
“What had happened was that we had picked up from weather reports what the heat conditions were going to be on the ground,” the secretary said, “but it turned out to be hotter than we expected.”
The heat, intensified by the compound’s thick, high walls, caused the helicopter to lose lift and end up on the ground.
Panetta was at that time on the line with Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. McRaven was monitoring communications from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
After the loss of the helicopter, Panetta recalled asking McRaven, “Okay, what’s next?” The admiral, the secretary said, replied, “Don’t worry, we’re ready for this.”
There was additional tension during a 20-minute period of silence that began after the SEALs entered the building where everyone hoped they would find bin Laden, the secretary said. Then they heard weapons fire.
“We knew gunshots had been fired but after that I just didn’t know,” Panetta said. It was at that point that McRaven reported that he might have heard the code word — Geronimo — that would mean they had found bin Laden.
“We still were waiting, and then within a few minutes McRaven said the words, ‘Geronimo KIA,’” the secretary said, which meant that bin Laden had been killed in action.
“And that was that,” Panetta said.
It was also tense when the team got back into the helicopters and began to leave the compound, he said.
“By that time they had blown [up] the helicopter that was down and you knew that we had woken up all of Pakistan to the fact that something had happened,” Panetta said.
The concern revolved around what the Pakistanis were thinking and how they would respond, and whether the team could get out without problems, he said.
“The moment they crossed the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, we finally knew that the mission had been accomplished,” Panetta said.
Yet, he said, there were no cheers or high-fives at the CIA’s operations center.
“We had some special forces people at the operations center at CIA and we all kind of looked at each other,” Panetta said. “As a matter of fact, I have a picture in my office of all of us putting our arms around each other, just [acknowledging that] we got the job done.”
Today, nearly a year after bin Laden’s demise, the United States and its allies continue to hunt down al-Qaida and other terrorists — wherever they may be.
“The more successful we are at taking down those who represent their spiritual and ideological leadership, the greater our ability to weaken their threat to this country and to other countries,” Panetta said.