By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 16, 2011 - The May 1 raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was "a perfect fusion of intelligence collection, intelligence analysis and military operations," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview aired last night on the CBS program "60 Minutes."
But the secretary acknowledged some anxious moments as the situation unfolded.
"I was very concerned, frankly," he told CBS correspondent Katie Couric. "I had real reservations about the intelligence. My worry was the level of uncertainty about whether bin Laden was even in the compound. But there wasn't any direct evidence that he was there. It was all circumstantial, but it was the best information that we had since probably 2001."
Though the intelligence was imperfect, Gates said, the national security team was on board with President Barack Obama's decision to launch the operation. "I think everybody agreed that we needed to act, and act pretty promptly," he said.
Gates -- who has worked for eight presidents in a public life that will culminate with his June 30 retirement -- expressed admiration for the courage of the president's decision.
"This is one of the most courageous calls, decisions, that I think I've ever seen a president make," he said. "For all of the concerns that I've just been talking about -- the uncertainty of the intelligence, the consequences of it going bad, to risk the lives of the Americans involved -- it was a very gutsy call."
Gates said that while it's too early to tell whether bin Laden's death will affect the rate at which the United States will be able to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, it could help the process of reconciliation in the war-torn country.
"If we keep the military pressure on and continue to hold what we seized over the last year and expand the security envelope," he said, "a change in the relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban could, in fact, this fall or winter, create the circumstances where a reconciliation process could go forward."
Meanwhile, he added, progress is happening and work remains to be done to ensure Afghanistan doesn't return to being a safe haven for terrorists.
"I would say that we are getting the upper hand," he said. "We have over the last 18 months put in place for the first time the resources necessary to ensure that this threat does not rebuild, does not re-emerge, once we're gone. I think we could be in a position by the end of this year where we have turned the corner in Afghanistan."
Gates also reflected on his tenure as defense secretary, which began in December 2006 during President George W. Bush's administration, telling Couric it "absolutely" has been the toughest job he's ever had.
"We have been at war in two places every single day I've been secretary of defense, and I've been secretary of defense longer than World War II lasted, longer than the Civil War lasted," said. "So it's been tough."
Leading a department that is organized to plan for war, but not to fight a war, has proven to be an especially difficult challenge, Gates said. "And so everything that I wanted to do to try and help the men and women in the field, I've had to do outside the normal Pentagon bureaucracy," he added, "and I have had to be directly involved on a week-to-week basis to make sure that it got done. That's been very frustrating."
As U.S. casualties mounted from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates accelerated production and deployment of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that have been credited with saving lives.
"My attitude was, 'If you're in a war, and kids' lives are at stake, you're all in,'" he said. "You do whatever is necessary to protect them and help them accomplish their mission. And if you've got this stuff left over at the end, then so be it. You also have left over a lot of living kids."
The secretary also worked to ensure wounded service members in Afghanistan made it from the battlefield to a hospital in less than an hour, a period that statistics showed would yield the best survival rate.
"The medical bureaucrats told me that in Afghanistan two hours was OK. ... I said, you know, if I'm a soldier and I've been shot, I want to have the same expectation that I did when I was deployed in Iraq, that I'm going to get picked up in an hour," he said. "So now, the average rescue time in Afghanistan is about 40 minutes."
Bringing the defense department budget under control is another challenge Gates discussed in the interview.
"The budget of the Pentagon almost doubled during the last decade, but our capabilities didn't particularly expand," he said. "A lot of that money went into infrastructure and overhead and, frankly, I think a culture that had an open checkbook. And so that's what we had to change."
His highest priority, Gates said, has been to get the nation's warfighters whatever they need to complete their mission and come home safely.
"I said kind of all along that I think of them as my own sons and daughters," he said. "It's because I send them. I'm the guy that signs the piece of paper that sends them here. I'm the guy that signs the condolence letters. I'm the guy that visits them in the hospitals. It's very emotional for me. They are the best."
Gates told Couric that before he sends condolence letters to the families of service members killed in action, he learns as much as he can about the fallen warriors.
"I swore I would never let any of them become a statistic for me," he said. "So with each condolence letter that I write, I get a packet of hometown news accounts of that individual, as well as a picture. And I get to read what their coaches and their parents and their brothers and their sisters say about them. So I feel like I know them.
"In some ways it makes the job harder," he added, "but I want the parents or the wives or spouses to know that I care about every single one of them."
Couric's interview with Gates continues on "The CBS Evening News" tonight.
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