US feared Pakistan leak over bin Laden

2011-05-04 12:14

Washington - CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an interview on 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 jeopardise 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 50km 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 criticising the "unauthorised 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.

Circumstantial evidence

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.

Though his CIA aides were only 60-80% confident that Bin Laden was there, Panetta argued to Obama at a pivotal meeting on 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".

Co-operation

"I kept asking Bill McRaven, 'OK, what the hell's this mean?,' and when McRaven finally said they had ID'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.

Despite the suspicions unleashed by the raid against bin Laden, the US and Pakistan said after talks in Washington the operation "underscores the importance of co-operation in our efforts to defeat terrorism".

"Both sides affirmed their mutual commitment to their strong defence relations, which they stressed should continue to serve as the foundation of the broader strategic partnership," the statement added.

The two days of talks by the US-Pakistan Defence Consultative Group were led by Pakistan Defence Secretary Syed Athar Ali and US Undersecretary of Defence Michele Flournoy.

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  osama bin laden  |  pakistan  |  us  |  security
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