WASHINGTON: Ever wanted to know how it would be for an elite team of special forces to penetrate deep into the territory of another country to attack a target, all the while hoping to avoid detection, while you, who gave the order, are sitting thousands of miles away in an office with only the helmet cams to give you a grainy footage of whats going on? US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recalled it was “fingernail-biting” as they waited almost a year ago when US special forces flew into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden in a hair-raising, high-risk mission.
“I don’t think there’s any question that America is safer as a result of the Bin Laden operation,” he told reporters as he flew back to Washington at the end of a tour of Latin American countries.
As director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, Panetta was in a pivotal position during the operation, which unfolded in utmost secrecy May 2 after months of preparations and President Barack Obama’s final decision to go. In fact, Panetta signed off on the memo on which Obama gave green light for the operation.
Codenamed Neptune’s Spear, the operation sent stealth helicopter-borne teams of US Navy SEALs across the Afghan border at night and without the knowledge of Pakistan on an uncertain mission to get the elusive al Qaeda leader.
The target was a compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad where Bin Laden was believed to be hiding, even though he had not been actually seen.
Panetta was monitoring the operation at CIA headquarters, in constant contact with both the White House and the commander in charge of the special forces raid, Admiral William McRaven, who was in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama watched the operation from the White House, surrounded by his top national security advisers.
It was a long night with “fingernail-biting moments,” Panetta said with a smile.
The first moment of high tension came when the helicopters, flying low and at night to avoid Pakistani radar, entered Pakistan, Panetta recalled.
“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,” he said.
Then came the Navy SEAL team’s turn to enter the walled compound where Bin Laden, code-named Geronimo, was hiding, Panetta said.
One of the helicopters was unable to maintain lift and crashed to the ground.
“It was hotter than what was being reported, what we had expected, and that combined with the [high] walls around the compound created a situation that reduced the lift of the helicopter and that’s when we lost that and it came down,” Panetta said.
A famous picture sent around the world shows Obama, his cabinet secretaries and key advisors looking with concern at a screen in a basement conference room of the White House. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can be seen anxiously covering her mouth with one hand.
Panetta said the photo was taken when the SEAL helicopter fell to the ground.
“I asked Admiral McRaven, ‘Okay, what’s next’ and he said ‘Don’t worry, we’re ready for this,'” Panetta said.
A year later, a lingering mystery remains over whether there is live footage of Operation Neptune’s Spear, which is suggested by the White House basement photo.
Panetta did not give a definitive answer but did acknowledge the operation was monitored closely. Earlier in the week, the US Supreme Court though put that argument to bed by ordering that none of the pictures relating to a dead Osama bin Laden, or footage of the raid were to be made public.
The CIA chief was biting his nails again when the SEALs entered Bin Laden’s house.
There was “a long period of silence after they went in, not knowing exactly what happened,” Panetta said.
“And we knew gunshots had been fired but after that I just didn’t know,” he said.
After a 20-minute lull, he said, “McRaven reported finally he thought they had picked up the code word Geronimo. And the way he said it, it was like, we remember, ‘Geronimo KIA,'” he said. KIA is the acronym for “killed in action.”
“And that was that,” the defense secretary said.
The SEAL team then returned to their helicopter, carrying their equipment and the body of Bin Laden.
“Of course by that time they had blown 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 SEAL team then raced across the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan safely.
Panetta said there were no shouts of joy at the CIA headquarters, where he was surrounded by other members of the US military’s Special Forces.
“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. We got the job done.”