WASHINGTON: America's response to 9/11 shows that "you don't mess" with the United States and that when attacked, "we will come and get you," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday.
Panetta, who as former CIA director oversaw the raid that killed Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden on May 2, said the hijackers underestimated the country.
"The people who attacked us on 9/11 were trying to weaken America, trying to hurt America. And instead they strengthened us," Panetta told an audience of police and emergency workers.
"Because you don't mess with this country, and what we made clear, is that when that happens, we will come and get you."he said.
Panetta thanked the firefighters and other "first responders" who rushed to the Pentagon after it was struck by a hijacked airliner on September 11.
"For 36 exhausting hours, firefighters battled what was truly an epic blaze," he said.
Panetta, who took over as Pentagon chief in July, recounted where he was on the day of the attacks ten years ago.
Out of government at the time, Panetta was on Capitol Hill briefing members of Congress as part of an oceans commission when he was informed of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
"Everybody in the room had kind of made the spontaneous decision, better get the hell out of there," he said.
With all commercial flights cancelled, Panetta had to rent a car to drive home to California.
"I have to tell you what I witnessed that day driving across the country is something that's also seared into my memory because I witnessed this country coming together. As I was driving across the country, there were signs coming up, 'God bless America,' there were flags people were putting up, people going to churches, people holding hands," he said.
"People coming together to try to confront what had happened."
Panetta oversaw a dramatic increase in bombing raids by robotic drone aircraft against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, as well as a concerted effort to track down Bin Laden.