WASHINGTON â" Killing Osama bin Laden was not a âsilver bulletâ that destroyed Al Qaeda, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said on Friday, but he asserted that his death weakened the terrorist group and made the United States more safe.
In comments ahead of the first anniversary of the raid last May by United States Navy SEALs on Bin Ladenâs compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Mr. Panetta said that the Bin Laden operation, along with other killings of Qaeda leaders, âhas prevented them from having the command and control capability to be able to put together an attack similar to 9/11.â
Mr. Panettaâs remarks were among the first in a series of recollections about the Bin Laden raid by senior Obama administration officials in a tight election year. The officials are highlighting the operation as an example of President Obamaâs national security experience in contrast to that of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Mr. Obamaâs expected Republican opponent.
Mr. Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time of the raid, was deeply involved in the planning of the C.I.A.-led operation. He made his comments to reporters on a C-17 military transport plane on the way home to Washington from a five-day trip to Colombia, Brazil and Chile.
Speaking to reporters in his Airstream trailer that is strapped to the inside of the C-17 â" it is called the âSilver Bulletâ â" Mr. Panetta recalled what he described as four ânail-biting momentsâ as the Bin Laden raid unfolded. He and other top C.I.A. officials were watching portions of the raid by live video feed from Pakistan at the agencyâs headquarters in Langley, Va., and listening to Adm. William McRaven, then the head of the Joint Special Operations Command and the raidâs commander, describe other parts of the raid as he monitored it from an American military base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. President Obama and other senior national security officials were simultaneously monitoring the raid from the White House.
The first nail-biting moment came when the helicopters carrying the SEALs left Afghan airspace for Pakistan. âWhen they crossed the border and were going into Pakistan, there were a lot of tense moments about whether or not they would be detected,â Mr. Panetta said. âWe were frankly tracking other signals and communications just to see whether there was a tip-off. That didnât happen.â Mr. Panetta was apparently referring to Pakistani radar and other systems.
The second tense moment came, he said, when one of two helicopters crashed inside the compound walls. âI asked Admiral McRaven, I said, O.K., whatâs next?â Mr. Panetta recalled. âHe said, donât worry, weâre ready for this.â The SEALs had prepared for such an event with backup helicopters that were nearby.
The third tense moment came when the SEAL team moved inside the Bin Laden compound, cutting off the video feed and keeping the president and his national security officials in Washington largely in the dark for nearly 20 minutes. During that time, the SEAL team encountered Bin Laden in his bedroom and shot him dead.
âI think we knew that there were gunshots that had been fired, but after that we just didnât know,â Mr. Panetta said. âAnd it was after that that McRaven reported that finally they had picked up the code word Geronimo,â the name given to Bin Laden in the operation. âThe way he said it was like, âWe think.â It wasnât ideal, so we were still waiting. Then it was within a few minutes of that, it was reported that it was âK.I.A., Geronimo K.I.A.,âÂ â for killed in action.
The fourth tense moment came when the SEALs blew up the helicopter that had crashed, so as not to leave its technology behind for the Pakistanis, and, carrying Bin Ladenâs body, piled into the single helicopter that was still functional and one of the backup helicopters that had by then landed. âBy that time, they had blown the helicopter that was down and you know we had woken up all of Pakistan,â Mr. Panetta said.