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Albright: Bin Laden Death a ‘Very Big Victory,’ But Not ‘Happily Ever After’

May 2, 2011 at 6:22 PM EST
Jim Lehrer discusses the impact of Osama bin Laden's death on U.S. foreign policy and efforts to fight extremism with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chuck Hagel.
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JIM LEHRER: There was euphoria, anger and even grief, as Americans reacted to the killing in Pakistan.

Judy Woodruff has that story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Spontaneous celebrations broke out across the country last night, as word got out that Osama bin Laden was dead.

In the nation’s capital, a crowd of hundreds, mostly college-age, waved American flags and chanted “USA, USA” outside the White House grounds.

CROWD: USA! USA! USA!

JUDY WOODRUFF: A similar scene played out at Ground Zero in New York, where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers once stood.

Charles Wolf’s wife of 13 years was among some 3,000 people who died there on 9/11.

CHARLES WOLF, husband of Sept. 11 victim: Yes, I’m very happy, because there’s one man, there’s one piece of evil energy, tremendously evil energy, that is off of this planet. It is out of this physical realm. And God will throw his soul into hell, into the depths of hell.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maureen Santora lost her only son, Christopher, a 23-year-old firefighter.

MAUREEN SANTORA, mother of Sept. 11 victim: I would like to think that all the people that were murdered, you know, out of hatred on Sept. 11 are celebrating tonight. They’re just celebrating that good outweighed evil, and evil was given a very swift blow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elsewhere, fans in Philadelphia erupted into cheers during last night’s Mets-Phillies baseball game as they read the news on cell phones.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Small celebrations also broke out on a number of college campuses across the country. And, today, people were still coming to terms with the fact of bin Laden’s death, from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.

ELIJAH ANDERSON, Washington, D.C.: To the men and women, you know, across the United States and in our military, it is a joyous occasion. It is a significant event for all of us in this country.

DALE TUCKER, Denver: It’s a significant moment. So, I think it allows us to maybe turn the page a bit on Afghanistan, perhaps accelerate our departure from Afghanistan.

TRACY WARD, San Francisco, Calif.: It’s about time. But I hope it’s — it’s going to change something. I don’t think it’s going to change anything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Others at the Council on American-Islamic Relations appealed for calm.

IMAM JOHARI ABDUL-MALIK, Daraa Al Hijrah Islamic Center: … that, as people of faith, it is not right that we dance on the grave of even a mass murderer. It is also a day to say that we have to move beyond the acts of revenge to reconciliation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid joined in welcoming the news.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: His death is the most significant victory in our fight against al-Qaida and sends a strong message to terrorists around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, made it a rare bipartisan response.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, speaker of the House: And for those who have fought and died in the war against terror and their loved ones, we honor your sacrifice. And to those who seek to destroy freedom by preying on innocent human life, we will not rest until we bring you to justice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairing the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also warned of possible retaliation.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN, I-Conn.: … the fact that there may now be a heightened level of danger for a limited period of time, as individuals or groups seek revenge for the murder of Osama bin Laden.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There were signs of stepped-up security today from New York to San Francisco. And the FBI and homeland security officials issued a bulletin, saying homegrown extremists in the U.S. could carry out new attacks.

JIM LEHRER: Now, finally, the death of bin Laden as seen by two former top U.S. officials.

Madeleine Albright was secretary of state in the Clinton administration, when al-Qaida mounted one of its first attacks against the U.S., on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam War combat veteran, was a Republican senator from Nebraska and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He now co-chairs the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

Madam Secretary, does the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden deserve all the attention it is now getting?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, former secretary of state: Absolutely.

I think he has been somebody who has created havoc throughout the world, and obviously killed not only Americans but a lot of other people. And I do think that it is very important that we understand all the aspects of this. And it does merit the importance.

But it also — we have to know that it’s not a fact that all terrorism has been dealt with and that we will live happily ever after. I think that this is a very big victory for the American troops that undertook this and for President Obama, who made the very tough decisions.

JIM LEHRER: Why did it take 10 years to find him, Senator?

CHUCK HAGEL, R-Neb., former U.S. Senator: This is a complicated business, Jim.

As Madeleine knows and all who have ever been connected into an intelligence operation — and intelligence drives everything — we are living at the most complicated, interconnected, combustible time in world history.

And these people are very clever. They use the same tools we use and resources. I was interested in listening to your last report about the question, why would he go to a city? Why would he be a few meters…

JIM LEHRER: Instead of the caves, yes, yes.

CHUCK HAGEL: … from a military installation?

These are smart people, clever people. Of course, he moved around. He moved all the time. He trusted no one. It isn’t a matter of us not trying to do it or applying all of our resources. We did.

But I would finish my answer this way, too, Jim. Intelligence is a mosaic. It’s many pieces. And you finally get enough pieces in place, you start to develop a picture, a sense of what we’re talking about.

And I think the intelligence community of America and the great progress it’s made over the last 10 years, spectacular progress, deserves great credit here, because, as we know from your reports — and we will know information that comes out here over the next few days — this was something that really started six years ago in trying to isolate this guy and his movements.

And we wanted to make sure that we did it right. When you’re talking about human lives, not just ours, but anybody’s, this has got to be a pretty flawless operation. And it was.

JIM LEHRER: But, Madam Secretary, I can’t — if we had a nickel for every time we on this program have asked everybody from presidents on down, what’s the problem, why can’t you find this guy? It’s a relatively small area. There’s — we’re the largest country in the world. We have the most important intelligence and military service.

Why — did — were you as frustrated? I don’t — you weren’t secretary of state at the time, but you were — right at the beginning, you were, when — when the — after the first bombings occurred. I mean, what — what was your level of frustration about this?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Terribly frustrated.

I mean, the problem was that, when we were in office, we — and Sen. Hagel has spoken to this — intelligence has really improved a great deal, but it was always kind of out of date. In many ways, they would say, well, we saw a tall person walking around, but it was like a month ago, or something like that. That would be part of the problem.

I always felt this is a little bit like, you know, those games in penny arcades where you have this hand, and you think you’re going to be able to pick up some toy, and it ends up that you really don’t have the control, because there really was not that kind of sense that there was immediate intelligence that could be acted — you know, that was what we talked about, was, basically, was it intelligence that could be acted on?

Yes, very frustrated. But the truth is that the meticulousness of this operation and the time it took is obviously something that has worked out. But I think that the people that were worked on it — that worked on it need to be really respected for the very careful way that they went — I think you put it very well, Chuck, in terms of the mosaic.

It’s one piece here, and can you hear something, and the signals, and all that. So, I think we should respect the way that this has been done, with such great care.

JIM LEHRER: What about the final decision? Secretary Albright just said it. Other people have praised the president for making the decision to finally call on the operation, say, go.

Was that a difficult decision to make, do you think?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I think any decision like this is a difficult decision, because as Madeleine knows so well from her days as secretary of state, every one of these decisions carries with it immense consequences and ramifications and ripple effects, especially if just one thing goes wrong.

And then that has an effect on everything else. And it affects confidence level. It affects optics, perceptions of our allies, our own people. And I think this was — from what I know of how this went down and how it was orchestrated and when they essentially said, let’s go, they had worked this thing out pretty well.

And I think they deserve tremendous credit here, because, if they would have failed at this in some way, or if he would have gotten out, or if he hadn’t been there, or whatever could go wrong, you can imagine the kind of effect that that would have around the world on America’s standing, about our leadership, our people.

So, always a risk, but I think they worked this as flawlessly as they possibly could.

JIM LEHRER: You think it was worth the risk?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Absolutely, because I think they — from what we now know is, they clearly made a lot of decisions, one after another, very carefully. They had lots of — the national security team, I think, really worked together very well, a step at a time.

They must have just held their breath beyond belief when that one helicopter failed, because some of us remember what happened in 1980 when we tried to rescue the hostages. So, there must have been, you know, heart-in-throat time.

But I think they did a plan B. What I really admire is the JSOC team that once, even they knew that that helicopter had failed, they still went ahead. And, for me, that is a sign of what an amazing military we have in terms of their capability of making independent decisions and moving forward.

I think the president chose very well, made the right decision. And the JSOCs deserve — the SEALs deserve a lot of credit.

JIM LEHRER: There’s a lot of nitty-gritty we still don’t know about, but did it occur to anybody — they had two big helicopters and each one of them was full of people, because they had 24 Navy SEALs, at least, involved in these — in this operation.

One of the helicopters can’t take off. How did they get all those people back on one helicopter, along with Osama bin Laden, and get it done? We will find out, I guess.

CHUCK HAGEL: We will.

I was a straight-leg infantry guy in Vietnam, so these complicated issues, like helicopters, other than jumping out of them — I never got back in them, but I jumped out.

(LAUGHTER)

CHUCK HAGEL: I don’t know. That’s a good question.

But they obviously, as your reports have noted and what Madeleine just said, too, is that plan B, plan C, the backups, because you have got…

JIM LEHRER: So, they must have thought about this ahead of time.

CHUCK HAGEL: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: What if we have only one helicopter?

CHUCK HAGEL: … 1980, just as Madeleine noted. And you have got to think through these things.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Amazing dedication of these people.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

Now, now that he’s dead — you mentioned it at the beginning, Madam Secretary — what difference is it likely to make on the big picture of terrorism and our relationship with other countries, any — any — in any context you want to put it?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I do think what it shows is that America is persistent and will get the job done. And I think that’s a very important psychological aspect, in terms of how we are viewed in the world, what we can accomplish.

You know, once the president had said — or, even earlier, President Bush had said it, too — is that we really — this was really something that we were going to do. And so, I think, psychologically, it is very important.

I think there are lots of different reports about what role he played recently. And clearly, the discussions about kind of a franchise is out there of different groups is something that is — makes it clear that this is not all going away.

But I think we — we need to make clear that this is a big deal. I think it really is a big deal, in terms of America being able to get something done that we said would happen, even — and the persistence, even though it took such a long time.

JIM LEHRER: What difference do you think it’s going to make, Senator?

CHUCK HAGEL: I agree with everything Madeleine said.

And I would just add that optics matter. Image matters. Leadership matters. How we are seen in the world matters. And also, I think it tells us one more thing. In this complicated world that we live in, alliances have always been important.

But seamless network alliances, seamless gathering and sharing of intelligence now becomes the order of the day. Even a great power like the United States has limitations. The entire arc from North Africa through the Middle East down into Central-South Asia is some — somewhat of, I think, a 21st century example of the great power of limitations.

We can’t move without allies, without that internal working with other countries and peoples, as we anchor to common interests. We have differences with Pakistan. We’re going to continue. But just as the secretary — secretary of state, the current secretary of state, said in your setup piece, we each, Pakistan and the United States, depend on each other too much. We can’t just let this relationship drift apart. Too much is at stake for both countries and the region and the world.

JIM LEHRER: But doesn’t Pakistan have some answers to provide…

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think they do, but I think the bottom line here is, we are linked with Pakistan. And it is a very complicated place.

It is — has a military and an intelligence that is complicated in itself. It has issues with their own extremists. They have corruption, a generally weak government. And they’re in a very tough location. So, there is an awful lot — and they have nuclear weapons.

So, the bottom line is, it is a very important country to us. And it is up to this great national security team, on both sides, is to try to figure out how to work through the complications. It may be the most complicated diplomatic relationship we have. And it’s going to take a lot of work, but I think President Obama did congratulate or thank President Zardari — I thought that was a very important move — and made clear that this had to be done, that we needed to cooperate with Pakistan, as Secretary Clinton said.

So, it’s going to take work, and it’s necessary to work on it.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, what’s your level of concern that this could trigger retaliation against U.S. targets, as well as Pakistani and other targets?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, that’s always a risk, but that’s a risk that you just have to deal with.

Whether we would have found him, eliminated him or not, we were still under the same essential threats. And I think that’s just part of the world that we live in. And, hopefully, at some point, we will start working our way through that.

But we’re in for a tough time here for the next few years, I believe. The world is. We’re up to the task. But America is really the leader here. And the rest of the world has to understand that, respect that, and work with us. We don’t need to dictate. We don’t need to impose or interfere. But we can lead. The rest of the world counts on that, and they need that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Absolutely.

And I think American leadership is essential. But, as I used to say, we are the indispensable nation, but it never — it does — there’s nothing about indispensable that says alone.

And, so, I completely agree with Sen. Hagel about the necessity of working with others, which is why the relationship with Pakistan is important and with our allies. And we haven’t talked about the war in Afghanistan. This is a big deal as far as that’s concerned and helps in terms of President Obama’s plans on that.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Madam Secretary, Sen. Hagel, thank you both.

CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Thank you.