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CIA Chief Panetta: Obama Made ‘Gutsy’ Decision on Bin Laden Raid

May 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a newsmaker interview with Jim Lehrer on Tuesday, CIA Director Leon Panetta described the tension of waiting for the final outcome of the U.S. Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, plus the preparations for the assault and what uncertainties President Obama faced in deciding to OK the attack.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And to our interview with CIA Director Leon Panetta. He was at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., when I spoke with him earlier today. Director Panetta, welcome.

When did you become certain that Osama bin Laden was actually in that compound in Pakistan?

LEON PANETTA, CIA director: Well, the problem was we were never really certain about whether or not bin Laden was there. We had gathered an awful lot of intelligence. And obviously, when we found this compound — because of the unique features of the compound — and then began to really take a look at it and continue surveillance over that compound, we were able to look at the — where the families were located, the fact that the families resembled the family of bin Laden. We noticed an individual who was pacing in the courtyard who at least had some of the appearances of it. But we were never able to verify that in fact it was him.

But when you put all these pieces together — the security precautions, the nature of the compound, some of the additional information that we had gotten — we had the best intelligence case that we ever had on bin Laden since Tora Bora. And I think it was that information that required that we had an obligation to act. And that’s why the president took the steps that he did.

JIM LEHRER: Were you able to discover whether or not he was there permanently, living there for the last five or six years? Or did he move around and this was just one of the places he stayed?

LEON PANETTA: Jim, we just did not know whether in fact he was there. I mean, we had all of this intelligence that indicated that there was a good chance. The fact that there were couriers who lived there who had a relationship with bin Laden and all of these other details that seemed to — when they came together, created a confidence level that there was a pretty good chance that he was there. But it was all circumstantial. We never had direct evidence that he in fact had ever been there or was located there.

There were some very tense moments as we were waiting for information. But finally, Adm. McRaven came back and said that he had picked up the word ‘Geronimo,' which was the code word that represented that they got bin Laden.Leon Panetta, CIA director

And that’s why, in the end, it became even a more courageous decision by the president to take this action because the reality was — and we red teamed this and talked about other possibilities — but the reality was that we could have gone in there and not found bin Laden at all.

JIM LEHRER: So, you were not absolutely certain. Was there any knowledge about where he might be within the compound? In other words, did you know he was in the bedroom on the third floor? Did the team know that kind of detail?

LEON PANETTA: You know, the reality was that there were these two brothers, and one of whom had been a courier to bin Laden. And we knew where they lived. Interestingly enough, one lived in the guesthouse — wasn’t even living in the main house, and one of the other brothers lived on the first floor.

And so we had determined that this family, this hidden family that was also there, was living on the second and third floor of the compound itself. And by the way, the third floor of the compound on the balcony had a 7-foot wall on that balcony…

JIM LEHRER: Wow.

LEON PANETTA: …which told us that they had implemented some very heavy security measures on that. But we could see clothes, and we could see some of the members of the family on that third floor. So our assumption to — you know, to those that were going in to conduct the assault was that we assumed that if bin Laden was there, he was probably on the second or third floor of that compound.

JIM LEHRER: Now, where were you, as director of central intelligence, during this operation?

LEON PANETTA: Since this was what’s called a “title 50″ operation, which is a covert operation, and it comes directly from the president of the United States who made the decision to conduct this operation in a covert way, that direction goes to me. And then, I am, you know, the person who then commands the mission.

But having said that, I have to tell you that the real commander was Adm. McRaven because he was on site, and he was actually in charge of the military operation that went in and got bin Laden.

JIM LEHRER: I mean, on site – meaning, he was -

LEON PANETTA: But I was, just to answer your question, we had set up an operations post here at the CIA. And I was in direct communication with Adm. McRaven who was located in Afghanistan. And we were in direct contact as the mission went forward.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have access to video of what was actually happening in the compound, et cetera?

LEON PANETTA: We had live-time intelligence information that we were dealing with during the operation itself.

JIM LEHRER: Did you actually see – or did you actually see Osama bin Laden get shot?

LEON PANETTA: No. No, not at all. We – you know, we had some observation of the approach there, but we did not have direct flow of information as to the actual conduct of the operation itself as they were going through the compound.

JIM LEHRER: What about at the White House situation room where President Obama was? Did he have any – was he seeing anything, any actual time, real-time action going on as well?

LEON PANETTA: I think they were viewing some of the real-time aspects of this as well in terms of the intelligence that we were getting.

JIM LEHRER: So do you think the – did the president see the shots fired at Osama bin Laden?

LEON PANETTA: No. No, not at all. I think we – you know, we saw from, you know, some of the operations that we knew that the helicopters had – were on the ground, that the teams were going into the compound. And that was the kind of information that we were following.

Once those teams went into the compound, I can tell you that there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes where we – you know, we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on. And there were some very tense moments as we were waiting for information. But finally, Adm. McRaven came back and said that he had picked up the word “Geronimo,” which was the code word that represented that they got bin Laden.

JIM LEHRER: What did you find out then or since about whether or not Osama bin Laden said anything to the American SEAL commandos?

LEON PANETTA: To be frank, I don’t think he had a lot of time to say anything. It was a firefight going up that compound. And by the time they got to the third floor and found bin Laden, I think it – this was all split-second action on the part of the SEALs.

JIM LEHRER: Was Osama bin Laden armed? Was he shooting back at the SEALs?

LEON PANETTA: I don’t believe so. But obviously, there were some firefights that were going on as these guys were making their way up the staircase in that compound. And when they got up there, there were some threatening moves that were made that clearly represented a clear threat to our guys. And that’s the reason they fired.

JIM LEHRER: And they had orders to fire. In other words, it was clear – it was fine with the United States government that they went in and shot this guy, right?

LEON PANETTA: The authority here was to kill bin Laden. And obviously, under the rules of engagement, if he had in fact thrown up his hands, surrendered and didn’t appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But they had full authority to kill him.

JIM LEHRER: And but as far as you know, there was no communication – verbal communication – between Osama bin Laden and the American SEALs.

LEON PANETTA: Yeah, Jim, not that I’m aware of. But obviously, we’re still getting the feedback from the SEALs themselves as to just exactly what took place during that mission. But as far as I know, there was no communication.

JIM LEHRER: What was the size of the American commando team? How many people actually went on the ground in that compound?

LEON PANETTA: There were 25 people that went on the ground. They were carried in two Blackhawk helicopters that went in. The approach was that those helicopters would go in. The first one would go over a courtyard in the compound. That group would rappel down to the ground and move into the compound – that the other helicopter would ultimately go over the roof of the compound and that a group would then rappel onto the roof of that compound.

What happened was that as the first helicopter had those problems and had to set down on the ground, the other helicopter made the decision not to go over the roof but to set down so that both helicopters sat on the ground and both teams immediately went into the compound itself. They had to breach about three or four walls in order to get in there. They were able to do that. And they immediately then went into the compound itself and fought their way up to the third floor.

JIM LEHRER: Now, there were a lot of rehearsals. These SEAL teams — this SEAL team went through several rehearsals before doing this, right?

LEON PANETTA: Yes. You know, Jim, I think the thing that gave me a degree of confidence for all the risks and uncertainties that were involved in this mission, the thing that gave me the greatest sense of confidence was the fact that these teams conduct these kinds of operations two and three times a night in Afghanistan. They’ve got tremendous experience with how to do this and do it well. And so, you know, they moved in on the same basis moving against this compound that they do almost every night in Afghanistan. And I think that gave us all some sense of confidence that they knew exactly what they had to do and what problems they would face in the mission.

JIM LEHRER: Was there a temptation to not take that risk with troops and go ahead and just bomb the place with drones or something else?

LEON PANETTA: We looked at several options that were discussed by the president and by the national security team. And one of those was a B-2 bombing attack that would just blow the place up. The problem with that is that it involves some serious collateral damage. And the president decided against that.

We looked at possibly some other more precise ways to try to conduct this. But frankly, no one had a sense of confidence that that would work. And the third was the assault. And we knew what the risks were. Once those teams go on the ground, what were they going to confront? What were they going to find? Would they be – could they be locked into that compound because of the Pakistanis suddenly attacking that compound and putting them in a very difficult position?

All of those risks were debated. All of them were thoroughly explored. And in the end, I think that’s why the president made a very gutsy decision by deciding that for all of those risks, we had to do this. And frankly, my instructions to Adm. McRaven were, admiral, go in, get bin Laden. And if he’s not there, get the hell out.

JIM LEHRER: OK, well, Mr. Director, congratulations to you and your colleagues at the CIA and elsewhere. Thank you very much.

LEON PANETTA: Thank you very much, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: The commander Panetta referred to is Vice Adm. William McRaven. He is in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command, known as JSOC.