Panetta recalls 'nail-biting' wait during Bin Laden raid

Published: April 28, 2012
This photo shows the house Osama bin Laden and his family was hiding in when US navy SEALs raided it. PHOTO: AFP

This photo shows the house Osama bin Laden and his family was hiding in when US navy SEALs raided it. PHOTO: AFP

This photo shows the house Osama bin Laden and his family was hiding in when US navy SEALs raided it. PHOTO: AFP Panetta was monitoring operation at CIA headquarters, in constant contact with White House. PHOTO: REUTERS

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.”

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (23)

  • Donga Bonga
    Apr 28, 2012 - 10:05PM

    It was a long night with “fingernail-biting moments,” Panetta said with a smile.

    How come it was night in Pakistan and USA at the same time? And that too a long one…


  • Roflcopter
    Apr 28, 2012 - 10:07PM

    a nail-biting backstab


  • rp
    Apr 28, 2012 - 10:12PM

    this action has stalled Pakistans foolish attitutde now Pakistan has learned a lesson will avoid action in India also


  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Apr 28, 2012 - 10:17PM

    Next American Presidential Election is about OBL raid and Pakistan’s role. Fasten your seat belts.


  • Anony
    Apr 28, 2012 - 10:37PM

    God know ..


  • Apr 28, 2012 - 10:44PM

    It’s the umpteenth time a news story is there discussing the ‘crucial’ moments in Operation Room in Washington DC. Obama, Hilary Clinton and now Panetta. No one is interested in your emotions and no one is keen to discuss how you guys were feeling then. We are more interested to know about the events, emotions & facts that occurred between death of Osama Bin Laden till his secret burial at sea. Who did that? How it was done? Who ordered that? Did anyone disagree? Why not a single person involved try to take pic of his dead body? Dear US Media, we are more interested in that instead of ‘nail-biting’ moments in America’s capital.


  • raheel
    Apr 28, 2012 - 10:53PM



  • DimagKiLassi
    Apr 29, 2012 - 12:16AM

    And after that nail-biting wait and the capture of world’s most wanted fugitive, u just threw him in the sea within minutes.. WOW makes perfect sense. no questions.


  • True Muslim Paki
    Apr 29, 2012 - 1:28AM

    Yes. It’s a great victory for US forces & a failure for Our forces. All of our forces Lost every war they fought & all they could do is impose military rule.


  • How?
    Apr 29, 2012 - 1:37AM

    Backstab? I also learned that from the Madrassas. Not anymore.


  • Super PAk
    Apr 29, 2012 - 1:38AM

    If and when they show the picture you will say that it is doctored. So really no use, we got utterly humiliated that night. Deal with it.


  • Super PAk
    Apr 29, 2012 - 1:39AM

    Why do indians think they can compare themselves to the American military. I don’t think any general in Pakistan has sleepless night when dealing with the Indian military.


  • How?
    Apr 29, 2012 - 1:43AM

    I agree with you but why ISI taking all the credit of OBL’s death. See:

    Whose lie to beleive? USA or Pakistan.


  • Imran Ahsan Mirza
    Apr 29, 2012 - 2:48AM

    Amazing decision by Obama, successfully dodging his main ally Pakistan in the war on terror. It shows complete incompetency of Pakistan military and absolute failure of our intelligence agencies. Interestingly no one resinged on this failure, a stuborn power hungry lot. The world’s most wanted man was among us without any detection, truly unbelievable. The US has shown time and again that it is a great power to reckon, in militarily terms, in science and technology and also still at the top as an the greatest industrial & economic power of the world leaving the second economy China behind it half way mark.


  • Its (still) Econonmy Stupid
    Apr 29, 2012 - 4:05AM

    A big thank you for job well done Mr Panetta from residents of global village. History will treat Navy Seal and you good.


  • Arthur Lowe
    Apr 29, 2012 - 5:41AM

    It’s interesting however that we haven’t heard from OBL since…


  • Mirza
    Apr 29, 2012 - 7:51AM

    What OBL, what compound, what about his harem and kids? It was all a fiction of Obama’s imagination. A careful examination of that area by Abbottabad Commission still could not find any evidence of their presence. The western world is our enemy yet giving billions of $.


  • How?
    Apr 29, 2012 - 8:23AM

    I agree with you but why ISI taking all the credit of OBL’s death. See:

    Can ISI please release the pictures of OBL. Whose lie to beleive? USA or Pakistan.
    Never expect, only hope.


  • Mirza
    Apr 29, 2012 - 9:22AM

    @Arthur Lowe:
    Art, dead men do not speak even on the video!


  • ali gilani
    Apr 29, 2012 - 1:54PM

    @Donga Bonga: He was reffering to it as “night” because they were watching it in real time for hours so? quit dreaming about having a reason to call it a lie. IT HAPPENED. No conspiracy theory here, Osama is dead. and america killed him on your soil.Recommend

  • Apr 29, 2012 - 3:49PM

    This topic is going to predominantly figure in the election campaign in the US. Pakistan will be painted as the enemy.


  • j. von hettlingen
    Apr 30, 2012 - 12:30PM

    The killing of Osama bin Laden doesn’t eradicate Jihadism, which is embraced not only by the al Qaeda but also other extremist groups and sympathisers. As long as the source of the grievances are not tackled properly, governments everywhere will always confront the risk of terrorism.


  • pkbeel95
    Apr 30, 2012 - 1:03PM

    Panetta said. “As a matter of fact, I have a picture in my office of all of us putting our arms around each other.”
    but they haven’t any video, audio or even pic of Osama bin laden in Abottabad as evidence…
    because this operation was just a drama for 2012 Elections…


More in World