By Jim Garamone and Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – To most Americans the news that Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden came as a shot from the blue.
But to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the mission was the culmination of years of painstaking intelligence gathering, put to good use by a joint service team.
Panetta spoke about the raid today at the Pentagon. “Just yesterday, the nation marked one year since the operation that successfully took down Osama bin Laden,” he said. “It was a day that I hope Americans take the time to thank the very dedicated intelligence and military professionals who planned and executed that raid that delivered justice to al-Qaida’s leader.”
“We will always be grateful for their service, their sacrifice and their professionalism,” the secretary added.
During a recent trip to South America, Panetta discussed the raid itself. Last year, he was the Director of Central Intelligence monitoring the operation from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. The intelligence professionals with the CIA located the al-Qaida leader’s hiding place in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Still, it was far from absolute confirmation that the compound held bin Laden. Intelligence analysts used a lot of circumstantial evidence to deduce that the compound held the terror leader.
President Barack Obama made a gutsy call ordering the raid, the secretary said.
The special operations team flew to Abbottabad from Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The compound is 100 miles inside Pakistan from the border. Crossing into Pakistani airspace was just one gut-check moment for U.S. leaders monitoring the operation. “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” came when one of the helicopters carrying the SEALs lost lift upon arriving at the compound and make a hard landing. Panetta was on the phone with Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, then the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command and now commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. McRaven was monitoring communications from Jalalabad.
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.”
The SEALs entered the three-story building at the heart of the compound and it was 20 minutes before there was any report from the ground. “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.
But even with the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks dead, there were still tense moments. U.S. officials were concerned about what the Pakistani government would do, and whether the U.S. team could get out of the country without problems. “The moment they crossed the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, we finally knew that the mission had been accomplished,” Panetta said.
With the success of the operation assured, there were no over-the-top celebrations. “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.”
The secretary told members of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency today that the bin Laden operation was a remarkable experience and “one of the greatest memories in 40 years that I’ve been in Washington.
“Having the opportunity to work with the intelligence professionals, to work with Adm. Bill McRaven, to work with the SEALs in that operation was incredible,” Panetta said. “This was because of the professionalism and great dedication involved with that mission. It was the kind of stuff that makes you proud to be an American.”
With the death of bin Laden and many other strikes on the al-Qaida leadership, the terror group is a shadow of its former self, the secretary said. Still, it remains a threat, he said, and the dedicated intelligence and military professionals will continue with this mission.