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Interview with Former Secretary Powell

Interview with Former Secretary Powell

By The Situation Room - May 2, 2011

BLITZER: Joining us now, a major figure in the Bush administration's attempt to get Osama bin Laden dead or alive. We're talking to the former secretary of State, the retired U.S. Army general, Colin Powell.

General Powell, thanks very much for coming in.

COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: You were secretary of State on 9/11.

What -- what went through your mind?

How did you feel yesterday, when you heard that bin Laden was dead?

POWELL: Absolutely delighted. Justice was finally done and this killer was brought to his just rewards by being killed by U.S. Forces.

BLITZER: Did you learn about it from the news media or did somebody call you and tell you?

POWELL: Somebody called me late last night.

BLITZER: Somebody from the White House?

POWELL: No.

BLITZER: Somebody from the Pentagon?

POWELL: Somebody who had picked it up on the news.

BLITZER: Somebody who just called and you didn't...

POWELL: It wasn't official.

BLITZER: Oh, because it was like 10:45, 11:00...

POWELL: Something like that...

BLITZER: -- at night.

POWELL: It was about 11:00. I was already in -- in bed when the phone rang and a friend -- a very, very close friend, she goes by the name of Alma, my wife.

BLITZER: Yes.

POWELL: She was in Nashville, Tennessee giving a commencement speech. And she was still up and heard the news and called me immediately.

BLITZER: So you immediately turned on the television to watch what was going on?

POWELL: Of course, for a few minutes.

BLITZER: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: This whole -- this whole issue of bin Laden, he was supposed to be in a cave, but he was found in a mansion, about a two hour drive outside of Islamabad, pretty well protected.

Was that shocking to you?

POWELL: No. I -- I never knew where he was. And I didn't agree, necessarily, with he's hiding in a cave somewhere. There are other places you can hide and hide in the middle of a -- a populated area and be just as secure as if you were in a cave somewhere. So I was reasonably sure that he was probably in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. But I was really surprised at the size of the compound that he was in and the protection that it was around.

And the question that's going to be asked is, did nobody else notice this in that particular part of Pakistan?

BLITZER: So what do you think?

POWELL: I -- I don't know how it could go unnoticed -- I mean, seven, eight, nine, 12 foot walls and a new compound, relatively speaking, with very little traffic going in and out of it, with barbed wire on top.

BLITZER: So somebody was protecting this individual...

POWELL: I...

BLITZER: -- presumably within the Pakistani military or...

POWELL: No...

BLITZER: -- or intelligence service...

POWELL: I -- I can't...

BLITZER: -- or somebody?

POWELL: I can't say that. I'm just saying, I think that these are questions that will be asked. And I don't know what the answers are. But it sure sounds as if somebody should have noticed and sort of brought this to the attention of authorities.

BLITZER: You're a retired four star general, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Based on what you know about this military intelligence operation, how risky was it?

POWELL: It was very risky. You can never tell with an operation like that, whether something will go wrong at the end. You know, you're absolutely sure of the intelligence and you know the people are there. So there's always a high level of risk.

But the president, I think, handled this brilliantly, frankly. He had the choice of dropping bombs on him or actually going in to verify that the person that they were after was there and getting that person. And that's what they did.

BLITZER: It would have been easier just to launch a missile...

POWELL: Yes, but you...

BLITZER: -- a Tomahawk cruise missile...

POWELL: -- you never...

BLITZER: -- would have wiped out that whole area. POWELL: But once again, you never would have been able to be sure that you had gotten Osama bin Laden. And there might have been a lot of collateral damage. And so you can always make different judgments about a situation like this. But the president turned out to have made the correct judgment and he was supported by a great military team and an intelligence team and, of course, those very, very brave Navy SEALs who went in.

BLITZER: Describe those Navy SEALs to us, because, you know, we hear about them, we read about them. This was a joint operation, not just Navy SEALs, but there were intelligence operatives who went -- they had been planning this for a long time.

POWELL: They'd been planning it for a long time. They had been -- they had been building mock-ups of what the compound looked like. This is what these folks do. This is what the CIA does. The defense intelligence against work on it, as well. And this is what you expect our Joint Special Operations command, consisting of Navy SEALs, Army commandos, Army Special Operations people, our Delta Force -- lots of resources you can -- you can pull forward.

But the SEALS are at the top of the -- the top of the list of these kinds of units.

BLITZER: When...

POWELL: They...

BLITZER: -- when you were the -- the secretary of State -- and you used to, obviously, go into The Situation Room in the West Wing of the White House, when you were chairman of the Joint Chiefs. At one point in your career, you were the national security adviser.

Do they have the technology, during that 40 minutes that the troops were on the ground, the helicopters were there, for folks, including the president, in The Situation Room, to be watching or listening and hearing commands, knowing what's going on?

POWELL: During my time, we weren't quite that advanced. But what's happened in the last 10 years with respect to technology, I'm sure it was quite possible. I don't know exactly what the president was able to see and what they were showing him. And John Brennan didn't -- didn't clarify that for us. But what I'm absolutely sure of is that they had minute by minute, second by second control and knowledge of what was going on inside that compound.

BLITZER: And you can only imagine, General Powell, during those 40 minutes that the troops were on the ground and there was this firefight and all of a sudden they're told, in The Situation Room, a helicopter is no longer operating, we've got a problem, how -- how -- how nervous everyone must have been.

POWELL: You really -- you really feel the tension at that point. And the same thing happened in an operation we conducted in Panama in 1989 -- and you may recall those days.

BLITZER: I remember Desert One in Iran even earlier.

POWELL: Desert One in Iran. But in Panama in 1989, we went in before the invasion with Delta Force at that time, to rescue a CIA agent who had been captured by the Panamanians. And we landed on the roof of this building, got down there, killed a couple of guards, got the guy out, the helicopter took off and immediately landed on the street. It lost its power.

And we were, fortunately, able to get to that helicopter before anything else happened and we saved our guy.

But there always is risk in these kinds of operations. Things go wrong. Mistakes happen. But in this case, it was executed brilliantly.

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, General.

We have a lot more to discuss.

We're going to continue our conversation with General Powell.

We'll take a quick break.

I want to know whether or not he believes the photo of Osama bin Laden's body should be released to the world by the U.S. government.

We're going to hear General Powell's answer when we come back.

Also, did Osama bin Laden deserve a burial in compliance with Muslim tradition?

U.S. officials say that's what he received. We're taking a look at the pains taken to respect bin Laden's religion.

Also, people have gathered at the sites of the 9/11 attacks to celebrate bin Laden's death.

But are they putting themselves at risk for a new attack by Al Qaeda followers?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Joining us now, a major figure in the Bush administration's attempt to get Osama bin Laden dead or alive. We're talking to the former secretary of State, the retired U.S. Army general, Colin Powell.

General Powell, thanks very much for coming in.

COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: You were secretary of State on 9/11.

What -- what went through your mind? How did you feel yesterday, when you heard that bin Laden was dead?

POWELL: Absolutely delighted. Justice was finally done and this killer was brought to his just rewards by being killed by U.S. forces.

BLITZER: Did you learn about it from the news media or did somebody call you and tell you?

POWELL: Somebody called me late last night.

BLITZER: Somebody from the White House?

POWELL: No.

BLITZER: Somebody from the Pentagon?

POWELL: Somebody who had picked it up on the news.

BLITZER: Somebody who just called and you didn't...

POWELL: It wasn't official.

BLITZER: Oh, because it was like 10:45, 11:00...

POWELL: Something like that...

BLITZER: -- at night.

POWELL: It was about 11:00. I was already in -- in bed when the phone rang and a friend -- a very, very close friend, she goes by the name of Alma, my wife.

BLITZER: Yes.

POWELL: She was in Nashville, Tennessee giving a commencement speech. And she was still up and heard the news and called me immediately.

BLITZER: So you immediately turned on the television to watch what was going on?

POWELL: Of course, for a few minutes.

BLITZER: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: This whole -- this whole issue of bin Laden, he was supposed to be in a cave, but he was found in a mansion, about a two hour drive outside of Islamabad, pretty well protected.

Was that shocking to you?

POWELL: No. I -- I never knew where he was. And I didn't agree, necessarily, with he's hiding in a cave somewhere. There are other places you can hide and hide in the middle of a -- a populated area and be just as secure as if you were in a cave somewhere. So I was reasonably sure that he was probably in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. But I was really surprised at the size of the compound that he was in and the protection that it was around.

And the question that's going to be asked is, did nobody else notice this in that particular part of Pakistan?

BLITZER: So what do you think?

POWELL: I -- I don't know how it could go unnoticed -- I mean, seven, eight, nine, 12 foot walls and a new compound, relatively speaking, with very little traffic going in and out of it, with barbed wire on top.

BLITZER: So somebody was protecting this individual...

POWELL: I...

BLITZER: -- presumably within the Pakistani military or...

POWELL: No...

BLITZER: -- or intelligence service...

POWELL: I -- I can't...

BLITZER: -- or somebody?

POWELL: I can't say that. I'm just saying, I think that these are questions that will be asked. And I don't know what the answers are. But it sure sounds as if somebody should have noticed and sort of brought this to the attention of authorities.

BLITZER: You're a retired four star general, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Based on what you know about this military intelligence operation, how risky was it?

POWELL: It was very risky. You can never tell with an operation like that, whether something will go wrong at the end. You know, you're absolutely sure of the intelligence and you know the people are there. So there's always a high level of risk.

But the president, I think, handled this brilliantly, frankly. He had the choice of dropping bombs on him or actually going in to verify that the person that they were after was there and getting that person. And that's what they did.

BLITZER: It would have been easier just to launch a missile...

POWELL: Yes, but you...

BLITZER: -- a Tomahawk cruise missile...

POWELL: -- you never...

BLITZER: -- would have wiped out that whole area.

POWELL: But once again, you never would have been able to be sure that you had gotten Osama bin Laden. And there might have been a lot of collateral damage. And so you can always make different judgments about a situation like this. But the president turned out to have made the correct judgment and he was supported by a great military team and an intelligence team and, of course, those very, very brave Navy SEALs who went in.

BLITZER: Describe those Navy SEALs to us, because, you know, we hear about them, we read about them. This was a joint operation, not just Navy SEALs, but there were intelligence operatives who went -- they had been planning this for a long time.

POWELL: They'd been planning it for a long time. They had been -- they had been building mock-ups of what the compound looked like. This is what these folks do. This is what the CIA does. The defense intelligence against work on it, as well. And this is what you expect our Joint Special Operations command, consisting of Navy SEALs, Army commandos, Army Special Operations people, our Delta Force -- lots of resources you can -- you can pull forward.

But the SEALS are at the top of the -- the top of the list of these kinds of units.

BLITZER: When...

POWELL: They...

BLITZER: -- when you were the -- the secretary of State -- and you used to, obviously, go into The Situation Room in the West Wing of the White House, when you were chairman of the Joint Chiefs. At one point in your career, you were the national security adviser.

Do they have the technology, during that 40 minutes that the troops were on the ground, the helicopters were there, for folks, including the president, in The Situation Room, to be watching or listening and hearing commands, knowing what's going on?

POWELL: During my time, we weren't quite that advanced. But what's happened in the last 10 years with respect to technology, I'm sure it was quite possible. I don't know exactly what the president was able to see and what they were showing him. And John Brennan didn't -- didn't clarify that for us. But what I'm absolutely sure of is that they had minute by minute, second by second control and knowledge of what was going on inside that compound.

BLITZER: And you can only imagine, General Powell, during those 40 minutes that the troops were on the ground and there was this firefight and all of a sudden they're told, in The Situation Room, a helicopter is no longer operating, we've got a problem, how -- how -- how nervous everyone must have been.

POWELL: You really -- you really feel the tension at that point. And the same thing happened in an operation we conducted in Panama in 1989 -- and you may recall those days. BLITZER: I remember Desert One in Iran even earlier.

POWELL: Desert One in Iran. But in Panama in 1989, we went in before the invasion with Delta Force at that time, to rescue a CIA agent who had been captured by the Panamanians. And we landed on the roof of this building, got down there, killed a couple of guards, got the guy out, the helicopter took off and immediately landed on the street. It lost its power.

And we were, fortunately, able to get to that helicopter before anything else happened and we saved our guy.

But there always is risk in these kinds of operations. Things go wrong. Mistakes happen. But in this case, it was executed brilliantly.

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, General.

We have a lot more to discuss.

We're going to continue our conversation with General Powell.

We'll take a quick break.

I want to know whether or not he believes the photo of Osama bin Laden's body should be released to the world by the U.S. government.

We're going to hear General Powell's answer when we come back.

Also, did Osama bin Laden deserve a burial in compliance with Muslim tradition?

U.S. officials say that's what he received. We're taking a look at the pains taken to respect bin Laden's religion.

Also, people have gathered at the sites of the 9/11 attacks to celebrate bin Laden's death.

But are they putting themselves at risk for a new attack by Al Qaeda followers?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to show live pictures of United Nation Security Council in New York. A statement circulated by the U.S. delegation, obviously, supporting the death of Bin Laden being circulated. They're hoping that the current president of the Security Council, the French ambassador, will read it. We expect that they will, and they will go forward on the record praising in effect the death of Bin Laden.

We're here with Gen. Colin Powell, the former secretary of state. You know, they sat for months and months and months on this information that Bin Laden may be in this compound outside of Islamabad. When you sit on something like that for so long, don't you take the risk that he could be moved at some point and all that so-called actionable intelligence is for not?

COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Of course. You always take that risk. It's always a judgment call as to whether how long you wait to act on intelligence and when does it really become actionable, but in this case, they succeeded in keeping this closely held. As you know in your work-up statement, CNN reporters were asking, you know, what do you know? What do you know? And the president just dead panned. That's only way to do it.

The most important thing in an operation like this is operational security, be called (ph), keeping the circle of people knowledgeable about what you're doing as close as possible and as small as possible.

BLITZER: It's amazing that no leaks in all of those months about this compound, that no one knew, no compromise of this situation. You're smiling.

POWELL: It is amazing in this day and age.

BLITZER: Yes.

POWELL: But I know these folks, and I know how they work, and I know that it's possible to keep these kinds of secrets, but it takes quite an effort to do so, and you have to make sure that there's nobody in a position to leak any of it.

BLITZER: These are new pictures that White House has released. We heard the president in the White House situation room with his national security team. You see the vice president over there. You saw Tom Donilon, the national security adviser. You see Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton there. They were all in the situation room over at the White House during those very agonizing 40 minutes waiting for word that Bin Laden had been killed.

Over the past, since you've learned about it, have you spoken with former President Bush , former Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld, any of your former colleagues about this?

POWELL: No, I've been busy all day sort of keeping with up the story and doing some press events, but I haven't spoken with them yet.

BLITZER: How disappointing was it for you, for former President Bush, that on your watch, you didn't capture or kill Bin Laden?

POWELL: As disappointing as it was for President Clinton that he wasn't able too. I wish we could have gotten this guy on 9/12, the day after 9/11.

BLITZER: You were close in Tora Bora.

POWELL: We were close, perhaps, in Tora Bora, but we missed the opportunity if the obtain (ph) existed as controversial, but we didn't try to make the --

BLITZER: Why is that?

POWELL: I don't know, but there was evidence and intelligence that suggested he was in the area, but it never got translated into sending forces in there to find him. But, of course, we were disappointed. And I'm sure that everybody was disappointed, but these things take time. It is not that simple to chase somebody around in that kind of terrain and find them with reliable information, but he was found. It took ten years, but he was found, and he was killed.

BLITZER: You know, they gave him a proper Muslim burial at sea. I suppose they didn't want any location where his supporters could come and make him a martyr and celebrate him and be inspired by him. So, they thought the best thing to do is just dump the body at sea. A smart decision?

POWELL: I think it's a very smart decision, and as they said, it's a proper Muslim burial. That's more than he ever gave to the 3,000 people who --

BLITZER: Did he deserve a proper Muslim burial given --

POWELL: That's who we are. That's who we are. We're Americans. And we try to respect beliefs of others, and it would have been not in our interest to have essentially discarded the body if we had the opportunity to give him both a proper Muslim burial.

BLITZER: Should they release the photo of Bin Laden with the bullet in his eye and the dead body?

POWELL: I'll leave that up to the administration to decide. I don't need to see it. He's dead. We all know that. His body has been buried at sea, and I'll leave it up to the administration as to whether it serves any purpose or not.

BLITZER: If you were chairman of the joints chief of staff, what would you recommend to them --

POWELL: Well, I don't know. I haven't seen the picture. I think you have to see the picture to make a judgment as to whether it's in our interest to release it or not.

BLITZER: There will be skeptics out there as you know whether in the Middle East --

POWELL: Even if you show the picture, there'll be skeptics. That's just the nature of the world --

BLITZER: Because they'll say it was photo shopped or whatever.

POWELL: Photoshop which happens a lot these days, but I'm quite sure with the DNA evidence they have, with the pictures they have, as was said -- Mr. Brennan said, he's 99.9 percent sure, and there isn't that little one tenth of one percent hanging out there. This guy is gone. He's dead. He's off the face of earth. And what al Qaeda has lost is their intellectual head, their visionary leader. The person they looked up to, but he wasn't operational any longer. He was isolated in this compound with no telephone, no internet. It's hard to control anything. So, he's gone. But, the threat of terrorism is still there. Al Qaeda has franchised itself out, and we're still in danger. We're not in the kind of danger we were before 9/11. We've done a tremendous job under President Bush and under President Obama to deter and defend ourselves and to go on the offensive against terrorism.

BLITZER: Do you believe that elements of the Pakistani government knew Bin Laden was hiding in this town?

POWELL: I don't know, and I have no basis to make a judgment. I'm not in touch with the Pakistani government, obviously, and I don't know, but I'm sure those are questions that the administration will be discussing with the Pakistani government.

BLITZER: Gen. Powell, thanks very much for coming in.

POWELL: Thank you, Wolf.

 

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