The U.S. couldn’t trust Pakistan to keep the planned raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound under wraps, so American officials did not tip off the Pakistani government to the special forces operation that took out the notorious al-Qaida leader, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday evening in an interview with msnbc’s Andrea Mitchell.
“The problem we had is, with the Pakistanis is, when we would alert them as to targets that we were going after, the Pakistanis would usually tip off the people we were going after, and they were gone. And so we decided we just can’t trust them,” Panetta said at an event at the 92nd Street Y in New York, where he was promoting his newly released memoir, “Worthy Fights.” Panetta has been unusually critical of President Obama, whom he served under as both secretary of defense and director of the CIA. Panetta has gone after the president over his handling of the war in Iraq, the ongoing civil war in Syria and the rise of the brutal terror group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
On Iraq, Panetta has criticized Obama for pulling troops out of the country, which Panetta said earlier Tuesday “created a vacuum” for ISIS to thrive.
At the 92nd Street Y event, Panetta said the U.S. would probably need special forces on the ground in Syria to root out ISIS. “Presidents of the United States need to keep all options on the table. You do not want to tell the enemy what you’re not going to do,” he said, to applause. Panetta gave Obama credit, though, for launching a barrage of airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. Those actions, Panetta said, have helped repair the damage of Obama’s previous national security decisions.
Panetta has aligned himself with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in criticizing the president for not arming moderate Syrian rebels sooner – action some observers have argued could have prevented ISIS from gaining a foothold in the war-torn country. Congress last month approved Obama’s plan to do just that, more than two years after Syrian citizens began calling for the ouster of their president, Bashar al-Assad.
Panetta slammed Obama over his decision not to go after Assad after his regime launched a devastating chemical weapons attack on his own people last summer.
“I don't know what the hell went into that decision,” Panetta said. “He should have, instead of walking around the garden, walked into the National Security Council.”
“We sent a very terrible message to the world” by not taking action, he added.
On the issue of executive authority, Panetta told Mitchell in a separate interview earlier Tuesday that he believes Obama made the right decision in ending the torture by waterboarding of detained terror suspects. But he said if the U.S. faced an “imminent threat,” the president “has the responsibility … to do whatever is necessary in order to get the information and protect this country.”
Panetta also waded into presidential politics Tuesday -- and he seems to be backing a potential Clinton candidacy over sitting Vice President Joe Biden, who is also angling for the job in 2016. Panetta has strong ties to the Clinton family, having worked under former President Bill Clinton as White House chief of staff and budget director, and he heaped praise on Hillary Clinton Tuesday.
“There is no question in my mind that she is tough and capable and wants to make sure that the United States remains the strongest country in the world,” Panetta said, adding that Hillary Clinton is “someone who understands you don’t just give up, you fight for this country.”