The following script is from "Defense Secretary Panetta" which aired on Jan. 29, 2012. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Henry Schuster, producer.
No one would have picked a 73-year-old, affable, former congressman as the one to track down Osama bin Laden. But Leon Panetta has held the toughest jobs in Washington and quietly done what seems impossible. Before bin Laden, Panetta helped balance the federal budget. In a long career he'd been budget director and White House chief of staff, but by 1997 he left Washington and went home to California. It was 12 years later, President-elect Obama made an odd request. Would Panetta lead the CIA? Panetta had never worked in intelligence but his team put a Navy Seal in bin Laden's bedroom. This summer the president made Panetta secretary of defense, in charge of managing three million employees, fighting three wars, and stopping Iran from building an atom bomb.
At home with Leon Panetta
Welcome to the Panetta family ranch. As you'll see, the U.S. secretary of defense is anything but a bureaucratic bore.
This last Tuesday, before the president spoke to the nation, he had a few words for Leon Panetta.
[President Obama: Good job tonight, good job.]
With nearly the entire government assembled for the State of the Union address maybe 10 people in the room knew what that was about. The Navy's Seal Team Six had just rescued two hostages, including an American woman. This time the action was in Somalia.
Scott Pelley: In how many countries are we currently engaged in a shooting war?
Leon Panetta: It's a good question. That's-- you know, it's--
Pelley: You have to stop and count.
Panetta: Gotta stop-- I'll have to stop and think about that, because you know, obviously we're going after al Qaeda, wherever they're at. And clearly, we're confronting al Qaeda in Pakistan. We're confronting the nodes of al Qaeda in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa.
When you're secretary of defense it's a small world and a dangerous one. Panetta was covering it when we caught up with him on a trip to Afghanistan, where he has 90,000 troops, Iraq, where the war was ending, and Libya where he'd helped depose Qaddafi. Panetta travels on a flying command post, where he can reach every American warplane, submarine and missile silo. If the president ordered a nuclear war, Panetta would launch it from what they call the doomsday plane.
Pelley: The president would reach you on this aircraft.
Panetta: The president would reach me on this aircraft and very possibly be on this aircraft, to be able to direct what happens in that situation.
We noticed Panetta's Spartan compartment is built for two. Two chairs, two bunks, two phones - for him and the president. But on this trip Panetta wasn't worried about Russia's thousands of nuclear weapons, he was thinking of what he would do if Iran built just one.
Panetta: The United States, and the president's made this clear, does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us. And it's a red line obviously for the Israelis so we share a common goal here. If we have to do it, we will do it.
Pelley: What is it?
Panetta: If they proceed and we get intelligence that they're proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it.
Pelley: Including military steps?
Panetta: There are no options that are off the table.
We were surprised to hear how far he thinks Iran has come.
Panetta: The consensus is that, if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon.
Of course, Panetta knows more than he tells. Maybe he knows who's bombing Iranian scientists, why Iran's missile facility mysteriously blew up or how a computer virus wrecked Iran's uranium enrichment plant. Judging from the U.S. spy drone that fell in Iran, America and its allies are waging war without sending thousands of troops.
The doomsday plane is laden with secret gear, we can't show you most of it. It's so heavy the Air Force refueled it twice in the night sky over the Atlantic. It turns out the lightest thing on board was the heart of the man with a world of worry.
Pelley: How do you launch the nuclear response from this airplane? You pick up this phone?
Panetta: Don't touch anything Scott. (laugh)
Leon Panetta is rarely far from an eyelid collapsing, ground shaking, belly laugh. It's involuntary and to people around him its reassuring that, with lives at stake, he stays in touch with his humanity and where he came from.
Leon Panetta lives on the farm where he grew up. He and his brother planted these walnut trees, 65 years ago, with their father, and the Panetta's stick to their roots in northern California. He and his wife Sylvia raised three boys here; one of whom served in Afghanistan. Panetta's parents had arrived here from Italy without a word of English.
Pelley: Did you pick the walnuts?
Panetta: Used to pick 'em all the time. My dad used to have a pole and hook, and shake every one of these branches, and hit the walnuts. And my brother and I used to be underneath collecting the walnuts, putting 'em in sacks. And, you know, my dad often said I was well-trained to go to Washington because I'd been dodging these nuts all my life.
His mother wanted a pianist. But Panetta orchestrated a run for Congress and, for 16 years, represented his home district. He became President Clinton's budget director and worked with Congress to balance the federal budget for the only time in the last 42 years.
Pelley: A lot of people were surprised when your name came up for director of Central Intelligence.
Panetta: I was kind of surprised, as well. I spent most of my life working on budget issues and thought that you know, that would more likely be an area that they might want me. But the president said, "I need somebody who can restore the credibility of the CIA." And for me, that represented a challenge.
The first challenge, ordered by the president, was to rethink the search for Osama bin Laden. There hadn't been a good lead since the U.S. lost him in 2001 in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Within a year and a half of Panetta taking over as director of Central Intelligence, the U.S. tracked al Qaeda couriers to a house in a town callled Abbottabad, deep inside Pakistan. Panetta sent satellites, drones, officers and spies to watch it for eight months, but they were never sure that bin Laden was there.
On April 30th, 2011, Mr. Obama and Panetta made a point of being seen at the White House Correspondent's Dinner. Panetta's belly laugh was heard at every presidential punch line, but both men knew they'd just pulled the trigger. Seal Team Six would launch in 16 hours.
Panetta: The risks are, were, enormous, you know, going in that far, the prospect of detection, the prospect that, you know, one of these helicopters might go down, the fact that once they arrived there, we might, you know, have a shooting war with Pakistanis take place.
Pelley: With all of those risks you were facing, you recommended going ahead with this, to the president. Why?
Panetta: You know, in the 40 years I've been in government this, for me, was probably the most remarkable operation that I was a part of because everybody played their role in a very effective and responsible way. This was the best case we had on bin Laden since Tora Bora. And because of that, because for 10 years we had run into dead ends trying to track bin Laden down, I thought for that reason alone, we had a responsibility to act.
This is Panetta running the mission from CIA headquarters. He acted without telling our Pakistani allies. Because Panetta couldn't figure how bin Laden lived more than five years, undetected, about a mile from Pakistan's military academy - it's West Point.
Pelley: Elements of the Pakistani government knew he was there?
Panetta: I personally have always felt that somebody must have had some sense of what was happening at this compound. Don't forget, this compound had 18 foot walls around it. Twelve foot walls in some areas, 18 foot walls elsewhere, a seven foot wall on the third balcony of the house. It was the largest compound in the area. So you would have thought that somebody would have asked the question, "What the hell's goin' on there?"
Pelley: Is that why you recommended we not tell the Pakistanis that we were coming?
Panetta: We had seen some military helicopters actually going over this compound.
Pelley: Pakistani military helicopters?
Panetta: And for that reason, it concerned us that, if we, in fact, brought 'em into it, that they might give him, give bin Laden a heads up.
Pelley: I appreciate the diplomatic problems you have, Mr. Secretary, but everything you're telling me in this interview indicates that the Pakistani government knew he was there and that that's what you believe.
Panetta: I don't have any hard evidence, so I can't say it for a fact. There's nothing that proves the case. But as I said, my personal view is that somebody somewhere probably had that knowledge.
And there is one thing more Secretary Panetta noticed after the raid. There was no escape route from the house, it's as if the occupant was expecting plenty of warning. Today, the house is also short one brick. Hanging on the wall of his office, Panetta has a memento that CIA officers brought him. Labeled it bin Laden's code name: Geronimo, Abbottabad Pakistan.
Before the raid, President Obama nominated Panetta for secretary of defense. He took office over seven months ago, arriving these days at the Pentagon at dawn and working well into the night.
Last weekend, Panetta was aboard the USS Enterprise in the Atlantic Ocean, they even let the boss clear one of his planes to land.
He may be directing shadow wars in more places than he can count but one of his biggest challenges now is to manage the massive budget cuts in his big-ticket military ordered by Congress.
Panetta: The reality is that we now are facing, as a result of congressional action, having to take down the defense budget by, you know, well over $450 billion, over the next 10 years.
Pelley: And that will mean what?
Panetta: We'll have to make some very tough decisions about how we do this. The last thing I want to do is to make the mistakes of the past. We still have to protect the best military in the world, we still have to have a military that protects us against a lot of threats that are out there, terrorism, Iran, North Korea, nuclear proliferation, problem of cyber attacks, rising powers like China.
That's quite a list, for the globe trotting secretary of defense but the toughest part of the job is right here, at his desk.
Pelley: In your long career in government you've never had to make decisions of life and death.
Panetta: In some ways, in this job, I am doing that every day. And the toughest thing in this job frankly is writing the condolence letters to the parents of those young men who are killed in action. And that loss, having been a parent of someone who is stationed over there, you know what that means. But I also say to them, "You know, your son or daughter is really a true hero and patriot because they were willing to give their life for their country. And that means that they'll never be forgotten." And I hope that's some measure of comfort for them. Because, in the end, it's the only comfort I have is to know that these kids, when they put their lives on the line, are helping America be strong for the future.