WASHINGTON, May 15, 2011 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he had doubts about intelligence leading up to the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed 9/11-attack mastermind and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and called President Barack Obama’s decision to move forward “gutsy.”
“I was very concerned,” Gates said in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview that aired tonight. “Frankly, I had real reservations about the intelligence.” Gates worried that bin Laden was not even in the compound and that American lives were at risk, he told CBS correspondent Katie Couric. The intelligence was “circumstantial.” Still, it was likely the best lead the Defense Department and White House had on bin Laden’s whereabouts in a decade, Gates said. “I think everybody agreed that we needed to act and act promptly,” he said of Obama’s national security advisors.
Gates praised Obama’s decision to move forward with the operation despite the lacking intelligence, calling the results a game-changer in the war in Afghanistan. “This is one of the most outrageous calls, decisions that I think I’ve ever seen a president make,” Gates, who’s worked under eight different presidential administrations, said. “For all of the concerns I just talked about — the uncertainty, the intelligence, the consequences of it going bad, the risk, the lives of Americans involved; it was a very gutsy call.”
Although it’s still “premature” to tell whether or not bin Laden’s death will impact troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, Gates said, “I think we could be in a position by the end of this year where we have turned the corner in Afghanistan. And more troops could come home.”
Gates explained that the militant Taliban could reconcile with the Afghan government by year’s end, and the past 18 months of progress could ensure the Taliban nor al-Qaida re-emerge as a threat in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan is only part of Gates’ historical tenure as defense secretary. When he retires later this summer, Gates will have overseen wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both at some of the most promising and doubtful periods of each war.
And through it all, Gates said his highest priority was to ensure the safety of troops by making sure they had what they needed to accomplish their mission. “If you’re in a war, and kids’ lives are at stake, you do whatever is necessary to protect them and help them accomplish their mission,” Gates said, explaining his decision to spend more than $40 billion on the mine-resistant, ambush-protected, up-armored vehicle. The MRAP, he noted, has saved thousands of lives.
“I think of [troops] as my own sons and daughters,” he said. “I’m the guy that signs the piece of paper that sends them. I’m the guy that signs the condolence letters. I’m the guy that visits them in the hospital.
“It’s very emotional for me,” he continued. “They are the best. I want the parents, the wives, the spouses to know that I care about every single one of them.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)