WASHINGTON, May 3, 2011 (AFP) – CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an interview Tuesday that officials ruled out informing Islamabad about a planned raid against Osama bin Laden’s compound as they feared their Pakistani counterparts might alert the Al-Qaeda chief.
Panetta told Time magazine that “it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission: They might alert the targets.”
For years Pakistan’s government denied suspicions that Bin Laden was hiding inside its borders, but a US assault force found him a mere 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Pakistani capital living near a military academy.
The operation has highlighted tensions between Washington and Islamabad, with Pakistan’s foreign ministry on Tuesday criticizing the “unauthorized unilateral” raid.
Panetta also told the magazine that the options presented to President Barack Obama included bombing the compound with B-2 bombers or firing a “direct shot” with cruise missiles.
Air strikes were in the end ruled out because of the risk of “too much collateral,” said Panetta, a reference to potential civilian casualties.
But the cruise missile option was still under consideration as late as Thursday, a day before Obama approved the helicopter assault.
During White House deliberations, Panetta said he acknowledged there was only “circumstantial evidence” that Bin Laden was in the compound, as there were no spy satellite photos of the Al-Qaeda founder in the large compound.
Although his CIA aides were only 60-80 percent confident that Bin Laden was there, Panetta argued to Obama at a pivotal meeting Thursday that it was worth taking the gamble and that it was the best chance to take out the Al-Qaeda mastermind since a failed attempt in 2001 after the US invasion of Afghanistan.
He said he told the White House meeting, “when you put it all together … we have the best evidence since (the 2001 battle of) Tora Bora (where bin Laden was last seen), and that then makes it clear that we have an obligation to act.”
As he followed the operation from CIA headquarters in Langley, Panetta said the room was tense with anticipation.
He asked Vice Admiral William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Operations Command overseeing the raid, to explain the military chatter and to confirm the fate of Bin Laden – who was referred to by the code name “Geronimo.”
“I kept asking Bill McRaven, â€˜OK, what the hellâ€™s this mean?,â€™ and when McRaven finally said they had IDâ€™d Geronimo, … All the air we were holding came out,” Panetta said.
When the American helicopters flew from the compound 15 minutes later, the room erupted into applause, Panetta said.