In his first interview since the death of Osama bin Laden, CIA Director Leon Panetta says that bin Laden’s compound produced an “impressive amount” of intelligence, and that despite the circumstantial that bin Laden was there, the U.S. had an “obligation to act.”
Panetta’s comments came in a conversation with Time Magazine. In it, he reveals more details about the circumstances surrounding the decision, including the reliability of the intelligence:
On Tuesday, Panetta assembled a group of 15 aides to assess the credibility of the intelligence they had collected on the compound in Abbottabad where they believed bin Laden was hiding. They had significant “circumstantial evidence” Bin Laden was living there, Panetta says — the residents burned their trash and had extraordinary security measures — but American satellites had not been able to photograph bin Laden or any members of his family. The Tuesday meeting included team leaders from the CIA’s counter-terrorism center, the special activities division (which runs covert operations for the agency) and officials from the office of south Asian analysis.
But Panetta concluded the evidence was strong enough to risk the raid, despite the fact that his aides were only 60%-80% confident that bin Laden was there, and decided to make his case to the President. At the key Thursday meeting in which President Barack Obama heard the arguments from his top aides for and against going into Pakistan to kill or capture bin Laden, Panetta admitted that the evidence of bin Laden’s presence in the compound was circumstantial. But “when you put it all together,” Panetta says he told the room, “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.”
Obama decided that Panetta’s arguments trumped two other options: striking the compound remotely or waiting until more evidence was available to prove bin Laden was there. “If I thought delaying this could in fact produce better intelligence that would be one thing,” Panetta says he argued, “But because of the nature of the security at the compound, we’re probably at a point where we’ve got the best intelligence we can get.”
The aftermath of the mission has been productive. The U.S. collected an “impressive amount” of material from bin Laden’s compound, including computers and other electronics, Panetta says. Panetta has set up a task force to act on the fresh intelligence. Intelligence reporting suggests one of bin Laden’s wives who survived the attack has said the family had been living in the compound since 2005, a source tells TIME.
Read the entire interview here.