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Special Interview with Admiral William McRaven

Aired July 28, 2012 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Aspen, Colorado.

This week, some of the world's top experts on fighting terrorism gathered here in Colorado for the Aspen Institute Security forum.

I had a chance to conduct the first-ever public in-depth interview with the U.S. Navy admiral who planned and executed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Our discussion was extraordinary, candid, and at times even funny. We're going to play part of it throughout the hour.

Admiral William McRaven may not be a household name, but as you're about to see, he's a genuine U.S. hero.


BLITZER: We always think of, in recent years, of course, at least in the past year, with admiral McRaven, as the orchestrator, the architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And you know, we've all read a lot about it. I know Peter Bergen is here, he's written a whole book about it, an excellent book about it. But this is the guy who's sitting right here, who had the guts to tell the commander in chief, we should do it, let's do it, and when you ordered that raid, and when you said, you think -- you didn't even know for sure that bin Laden was in a Abbottabad in that compound, about a mile or so away from the west point of Pakistan, did you?

ADMIRAL WILLIAM MCRAVEN, COMMANDER, U.S. SPECIAL OPERATIONS: Well, let me make one thing clear, I didn't order the raid.


BLITZER: But he told the president of the United States that he thought he could do it.

MCRAVEN: And this is not a small point. The fact of the matter is, it was the president of the United States that ordered the raid.

BLITZER: And he deserves an enormous amount of credit for that decision.

MCRAVEN: Absolutely, he does.


BLITZER: And when he came to the head of special operations, that would be you, and said, what do you think, what did you say?

MCRAVEN: Well, first, I will tell you that it was a long process to get there. And our piece of it with, the military piece, of kind of what I look at as three components was probably the easiest aspect of the entire raid.

The two other pieces of this were the CIA's role and I think when the history is finally written and outlined and exposed on how the CIA determined that bin Laden was there, it will be one of the great intelligence operations in the history of intelligence organizations. And a tremendous amount of that credit goes to director Leon Panetta at the time, because he built the right team, he had the right people, he made some very gutsy calls. And he was not concerned about who got the credit. And so when you take a look at how he built that team, which was a military and intelligence team, a tremendous amount of credit goes to the agency.

And the other piece of this really is the president and his national security team. I've made it very clear to people, again, the military piece of this, we did, I think, 11 other raids that evening in Afghanistan.

Now, I don't want to diminish the nature of this raid. It was a little bit more sporting. And we understood that there were some strategic implications to it. But at the end of the day, it was what we have been doing really for ten years.

The president and his national security team, you know, I'm not a political guy, but I will tell you, as an interested observer in this, they were magnificent in how they handled the start-to-finish.

We went through a number of meetings. The president asked all the right questions. His national security team, with secretary Gates, secretary Clinton, chairman Mullen, the vice chairman, Tom Donilon, Denis McDonough, and John Brennan and others really did a fine job of digging down to find out the facts, to make their recommendations based on the facts, and, of course, the president gave me ample time to prepare once the concept was approved.

But at the end of the day, make no mistake about it, it was the president of the United States that shouldered the burden for this operation that made the hard decisions, that was instrumental in the planning process, because I pitched every plan to him. So any indication that Will McRaven, you know, ordered this raid, led this raid was, you know, the key piece of this raid, is just patently false.

BLITZER: But you're a Navy S.E.A.L..



BLITZER: And these men who went in there, Navy S.E.A.L.s, they were taking orders from you directly.

MCRAVEN: They were.

BLITZER: You were speaking to all of them, you knew each one of them personally. Here's just a technical question. Did you rehearse it in advance?

MCRAVEN: Well, I'm not going to talk about the tactical details. But, obviously, we're not going to do a mission like that without rehearsing it. We rehearse every operation, particularly significant ones like that. As I said, I have made a point of not talking about the tactical piece of this, other than to say that it is what we do. We get on helicopters, we go to objectives, we secure the objectives, we get back on helicopters, and we come home. I was short one helicopter, but the --


BLITZER: Well, that stealth helicopter, when it went down, and all of us have read about it, we've heard about it, I've spoken to people who were in that room, the White House situation room, as opposed to another "situation room," but when that helicopter went down, there was a gasp. Because a lot of the folks there, correct me if I'm wrong, thought of desert one in 1980, and Jimmy Carter's plan to rescue Americans in Iran.

MCRAVEN: Well, I wouldn't pretend to tell you what they were thinking.

BLITZER: What were you thinking?

MCRAVEN: I was too busy, frankly -- I mean, we had a backup plan. We executed the backup plan, and at that point in time, you're worried about getting the mission done and getting the boys back home. So we had a plan, suffice it to say.

BLITZER: And it worked?

MCRAVEN: And it worked.

BLITZER: That helicopter, by the way, all that -- the stealth technology and all that, is it gone? Has it been shared with pad guys?

MCRAVEN: I'm not going to address that.

BLITZER: You don't want to talk about it. Curious.


BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit about -- and I want to nail this down as best as we can. You didn't have 100 percent knowledge, the president didn't have 100 percent knowledge that bin Laden was hole up in that compound.

Did you have 80 percent, 50 percent? Give me a ballpark, how confident were you that a tall guy was hiding out in that compound? MCRAVEN: Again, I'm not going to address the tactical piece of that. Suffice it to say, we were not sure that he was there. And again, that gets back to some tough decisions that were made. My job was to get him, if he was there. If he wasn't there, we would know that pretty quickly, and our intent was to get up and get out.

BLITZER: I suspect you're not going to want to answer this question, but I'll ask it anyhow.


BLITZER: And as the admiral and I know, we just spent some time tog, this is the United States of America. We can ask the questions, he doesn't have to answer them, but we can ask the questions.

And I think it's an important question, that at least I have always been very, very curious about. Was the mission to capture bin Laden, or was the mission to kill bin Laden?

MCRAVEN: You know, that's a great question. I'm not going to answer it.


BLITZER: All right. But there were contingencies this guy would be brought out in a helicopter and brought somewhere?

MCRAVEN: Did they teach you this, to do the end-around, when the first question didn't work.

BLITZER: Trying to make sure -- you don't want to discuss that?


BLITZER: The Navy S.E.A.L.s who went in to get bin Laden, did they speak other languages other than English?



BLITZER: OK. That's a -- all right. That's important.


BLITZER: Because not only were they courageous and great physical shape and brilliant, they also spoke one other language.

MCRAVEN: They did.

BLITZER: All of them or just some of them?

MCRAVEN: Just some of them.

BLITZER: That's very, very important. I told our guests here and those who were listening and watching that we'd come back to the bin Laden raid. And there's been so much written about it, and I know some of it is great, but some of it not so great.

Share with us one nugget, one nugget that without violating sources or methods or classified information, that you believe is important, that the American people know about this raid, that they may not have read about or don't know about, something that you know, you want to share?

MCRAVEN: Yes. You know, I think what the American people, they probably know, but they may not appreciate, is how great our interagency process is. And I look around the audience at some of our great interagency representatives here.

But when you look at the CIA, the FBI, the defense intelligence agency, NGA, homeland security, national counterterrorism center, all of these folks day in and day out, that are going after the threat that's out there, that are looking at the threat, that are protecting the American people, and how well they work together, day in and day out. And you don't see that.

You tend to think that the FBI's lane is very clear and that the CIA's lane is very clear, and that the defense and intelligence is very clear. But in reality, they are all talking to each other, all day long, making sure that the information they've got and the intelligence they've got is right. They are checking and double checking.

So as we went into the bin Laden raid, this thought that this is going to be difficult pulling the military and the CIA together, along with the support we had from the national security agency and NGA and others, this was easy for us.

It was easy for us, because for the last ten years, we've been doing this. We've been building this interagency team, and I've got to tell you, today it hums. You know, on the margins, are there problems? Sure. But if you talk to, you know, Bob Mueller or Keith Alexander here or Dave Petraeus, I mean, we've known each other all for a long time. We are not only colleagues, but we are friends. And so, when you have that trust, everything else is easy. And we built that trust up over many, many years.

BLITZER: And how good is the intelligence? Because without good intelligence, in the bin Laden raid, if you didn't have good intelligence, you wouldn't have known anything. But when you go into a mission in Afghanistan or any place elsewhere in the world, do you have confidence in the intelligence you're getting?

MCRAVEN: We have the best intelligence agencies in the world, bar none. And there is nobody even close to us.



BLITZER: Coming up, stress, suicide, and war. Admiral McRaven talks about the pressure on today's servicemen and women and what he's doing about it.

Plus, gays serving openly in the military and whether it's had an impact on operations.

Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: My rare discussion with the commander of special ops continues. I asked him about stress, suicide, and war, and the unusual pressures that are on members of today's military.


BLITZER: The stress is enormous. The training is very, very rigid, very, very difficult. They serve two, three, four, five tours in a war zone. A lot of them come back, obviously, injured. Some of them don't come back at all. They come back and they have posttraumatic stress and the suicide rate, unfortunately, is really getting higher and higher. Certainly higher than it was 20 years ago.



MCRAVEN: Well, let me give you a little bit broader answer to that.

Before I took command, my predecessor, admiral Eric Olson, initiated a study to take a look at the pressure on the force. And they spent ten months looking at all of our units. I think they talked to somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,000 soldiers, about 1,000 spouses, went to over 400 different meetings to determine whether or not, what status of the force was. And that report landed on my desk about the time I took command. And frankly, as Eric Olson had said a number of times in testimony, the force was frayed. And I think that was exactly the right term.

You know, we're not crumbling, you know, we're not destroyed, but we were clearly fraying a year ago. I think that fraying is getting a little worse. We are putting an inordinate amount of effort to making sure that we are now preserving the force and families. I have taken a look at the scope of the problem. I have assigned a general officer. I got my command sergeant major and myself are going out, we're talking to the troops, we are trying to figure out what the real issues are.

You can look at statistics, but statistics don't tell you everything. For example, you talked about our suicide rate. It is as high as it has been in recorded history, in terms of how long we've been keeping track of this, which is really a couple years now. Having said that, most people would think, that's the result of fact that guys have been in hard combat, have seen their buddy killed in front of them, but we don't find that necessarily to be the case.

The suicides that we are tracking right now tend to be related to a couple of things. Relationships. There's always a bad relationship in there. There's alcohol or drugs that are involved. And there are some other, other things that contribute to it. But it's not as easy as saying, this kid was in combat and that's why he has, you know, that kind of stress that caused him to commit suicide.

So I will tell you, there is a tremendous effort on the part of the secretary of defense, actually, the commander in chief on down to take a hard look at our problems with suicide and do something about them and we are making a full-court press to do that.

BLITZER: Now that gays are allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military, I assume the special operations, among the 66,000 troops that you command, there are gays and lesbians who serve there, how is that working out? Because we heard all sorts of horror stories, fears that this would be a disaster.

MCRAVEN: Yes. But at the end of the day, all we care about is whether you carry your rucksack and you do your job, you know?


MCRAVEN: And so, whether you're a female, whether you're gay or lesbian, whether you're a minority is immaterial to the guy in the military. We just want somebody that steps up and does their job.

BLITZER: And close quarters, has this been an issue at all? Because we heard all sorts of fears that this was going to be bad.

MCRAVEN: No. Can I tell you, I don't want to speak for the other services and the folks that are down range, but I have not had to deal with any of those issues as the commander of SOCOM. Not to say they're not out there and somebody else hasn't had to deal with them, but right now nothing has been raised to my level.


BLITZER: My interview with admiral McRaven continues in a moment.

Up next, the qualities he says are crucial to become a U.S. Navy S.E.A.L.



BLITZER: How many try out to become a Navy S.E.A.L. and how many are eventually accepted?

MCRAVEN: Well, historically, and I'm not exactly sure what today's figures are, but I would tell you that historically, you know, it's about a 50 percent will make it through. That's kind of splitting the officers and the listed. The officers tend to do a little better, in terms of their success rate, because we start with them a little bit earlier at the naval academy's, at other areas.

The enlisted rate tends to be a little bit lower on that scale, but we're working very hard to get more folks through without diminishing the quality. Because at the end of the day, it is the quality of the individual we get that will make us successful on the battle field, not the quantity. BLITZER: When you look at a young man or woman out there, 17, 18, 19, 20-year-old, who wants to be a Navy S.E.A.L., what do you look for?

MCRAVEN: Well, we look for a couple things. One, they've got to be able to think on their feet. The physical aspect of it is important. But we all know people that are very physically fit but can't think on their feet. At the end of the day, I want somebody who can think, react, and operate under pressure and make the right decision. Somebody that's got some life experience, some maturity.

What you find across the soft spectrum is that the average operator is about 34 years old, married with two kids, spent about six years in the conventional force, so he's got some life experience. And that's not all always true. The young S.E.A.L.s come in, some of them are 18, 19 years old. The young rangers come in, some of them are 18, 19 years. But across the board, our population is a little bit more experienced.

But at the end of the day, the physical piece is important, but thinking on your feet is the most important piece.

BLITZER: A lot of people don't realize that you had an excellent major when you were in college. Do you want to tell everyone here what you majored in while you were in college?

MCRAVEN: I majored in journalism.

BLITZER: Excellent.


MCRAVEN: What was I thinking?

BLITZER: Excellent. Excellent major.


BLITZER: Coming up, admiral McRaven makes news when he tells me all U.S. troops might not be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.


MCRAVEN: I'm not sure all U.S. troops will be out by 2014.



BLITZER: We're back with the first interview since the bin Laden raid, with the commander of special ops, admiral McRaven. You're about to hear us discuss Afghanistan. And I was surprised about something he said. Listen to this.


BLITZER: One of the controversial areas, and I want you to discuss it as much as you can, in Afghanistan right now is the, are these night raids that are going on, and the Afghans, and I interviewed President Hamid Karzai at the NATO summit in Chicago not that long ago. And you know, as someone who's watched all this unfold, it's still hard for me to believe, accept the fact that the U.S. still has almost 90,000 troops in Afghanistan right now.

U.S. taxpayers still are spending about $2 billion a week, $100 billion a year, maintaining that military presence in Afghanistan right now. Yet, Hamid Karzai, occasionally, and I criticized him for it in front of him, he seems to think he's doing us a big favor by letting us do that.

I mean, how do you deal with that? When you're dealing with someone, you have a mission to do, and the host country occasionally not only says bad things, but isn't necessarily all that receptive to what you're trying to do?

MCRAVEN: Yes. Well, it is a sovereign country, and we absolutely respect the Afghan sovereignty. Now, again, as I mentioned earlier, I don't conduct operations in Afghanistan anymore, in my role as the U.S. special operations commander. That's the per view of general John Allen. His role is the ISAF commander, and general then John Mattis in his role as the CENTCOM commander as they report to the secretary and the president.

So, what I can tell you, in the night raids, and in the course of our operation in Afghanistan, we are completely partnered with the Afghans now. And that has really mitigated a lot of, I think with, the senior Afghan concern about these night raids. The night raids are important for a lot of reasons.

Tactically, the enemy, as we say, beds down at night. So they will stop in a compound at night, and it makes it easier for us to locate them. Also at nighttime, the local population is not moving around as much, so frankly with, the opportunity to have an unfortunate civilian casualty is lessened by the fact that it's at night.

But we absolutely understand the Afghan's concerns about night raid. Nobody wants somebody coming into their house in the middle of the night. Having said that, we are working with the Afghans, within the Afghan legal system to be able to execute raids, both daytime, and where required, nighttime, in order to be able to get after a target that is beneficial to the Afghans and to the United States.

BLITZER: In recent months, and maybe it's been longer, there have been incidents where Afghan, Afghanis dressed in military uniforms have killed American troops.

Raising the question, do you trust these guys that you go on a sensitive night raid with, because they're armed, they're loaded. They may be totally loyal to the Taliban.

MCRAVEN: We trust them 100 percent. And the fact of the matter is, when you spend time with the guys that we spend time with, I mean, you realize they are just as patriotic, just as committed, just as tough, just as courageous as the American soldier that's partnered with them. So for the folks that we work, I don't think trust has ever been an issue. That's not to say that there aren't people out there that aren't trustworthy. And we have to recognize that and we need to always, I think, a little bit on guard, because the Afghans are wonderful people. Candidly, I think we have done a good job of partnering with them. And I think we'll continue to do that as we go forward.

BLITZER: When all U.S. troops are out, by the end of 2014, starting next year, you're going to be withdrawing those numbers big time. You think that that country is really going to be a stable, friendly country to the United States?

MCRAVEN: Well, again, that's -- you know, one, I'm not sure all U.S. troops will be out by 2014. That's certainly a decision by the president and President Karzai.

BLITZER: But I thought they'd made that decision already?

MCRAVEN: Well, what they've made is that there's going to be a long- term strategic agreement between the United States and the government of Afghanistan.

BLITZER: So they'll negotiate how many troops, trainers and others might stay afterwards, special operations forces, for example?

MCRAVEN: I think that is the case, yes.

BLITZER: So most of the 90,000 will be gone? They'll be -- after 2014, what are you thinking about? 10,000?

MCRAVEN: It's, again, not my place to discuss that. That remains with General Allen and the Afghans and the president to kind of make those decisions.

BLITZER: Because I heard the same argument, the same points being made when the U.S. was withdrawing all of its troops from Iraq.

Well, even after the U.S. withdrew all of its troops from Iraq, there would still be a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. But guess what, there's no continued U.S. military presence in Iraq right now, because the Iraqis did not want to give the U.S. military immunity from Iraqi prosecution. And I suspect, I could be wrong, that the Afghanis probably won't want to do that either.

MCRAVEN: Again, that's a policy decision, Wolf, and not in my lane, so to speak.

BLITZER: But you spent a lot of time in Iraq?


BLITZER: What's happening right now, and just the past 48 hours, we've seen several dozen terrorist incidents. The country looks like it's -- we don't pay that much attention anymore, because the U.S. forces are out of Iraq. But it looks like a horrible situation that's developing in Iraq right now. I'm very worried about it. What about you?

MCRAVEN: Well, we're certainly concerned about al-Qaeda in Iraq coming back. I think we recognized this would be a problem. But, you know, the Iraqi security forces, as we were exiting Iraq, they're very capable security forces. This is a tough problem for them. It's very complex. But I'm confident that they understand what the problem is and hopefully they'll be able to deal with it as time goes on. But, I mean, clearly, al-Qaeda and Iraq is a problem that they've got to deal with.

BLITZER: There's a huge uproar now, and from your perspective, and I'm anxious to get your sense about the leaks, about the bin Laden raid, whether it did undermine sources and methods. It went too far, there are investigations, as you know, on the hill right now, can you share a thought with us on how you feel about all this?

MCRAVEN: Well, we're never happy when leaks occur, obviously. I mean, we go to great lengths to protect our national security. Very great lengths to protect our sources and methods. So all of that, we guard very carefully. Unfortunately, not everybody guards that very carefully.

And I think what you've seen is the secretary and the president and Capitol Hill are taking these leaks very, very seriously, as they should, and we need to do the best we can to clamp down on it. Because sooner or later, it is going to cost people their lives, or it's going to cost us our national security.

So, it is important. And frankly, it's important, I would tell you, for reporters that are here. You're going to hear things and you're going to see things that you think the public needs to know. And I will tell you, I'm not sure the public needs to know all that.

A lot of times, you all are racing to a deadline to try and trump the next network, potentially at the expense of somebody's life. And I have had discussions with editors --


MCRAVEN: I have had discussions with editors about the sensitive nature of some of the things they're about to print, and they've been very candid with me and said, you know, if so-and-so's going to beat us to the story, I'm going to print it. And all you can do is make the best case you can. That's not to say that the American people don't need to have a completely transparent government. I got it. And I am -- I'm the guy that is working to protect that transparency, for all the right reasons. But I do think, as reporters, you have an obligation as well. And I would encourage every reporter in this room to accept that responsibility to protect this country.

BLITZER: I couldn't agree more.


BLITZER: But has there been, in your mind, without getting into detail, a specific piece of damage to whatever you do as a result of recent leaks?

MCRAVEN: I can't address specifics. Again, a lot of these --

BLITZER: Don't tell me the specifics, but just, has a mission been hurt, has an American life been endangered because of something that appeared in a newspaper or magazine or on television?

MCRAVEN: Again, the problem is, if I go down that road, I'm going to end up telling you what piece of information --

BLITZER: Don't tell me what piece of information.

MCRAVEN: I mean, are people affected by the information that comes out? You bet they are. Are lives at risk? Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right.


BLITZER: Admiral McRaven's worked for several presidents. What he thinks about the current president, the past commanders in chief, plus, the battle against al-Qaeda, and what the U.S. military is actively doing about it.


BLITZER: My candid discussion with admiral McRaven continues now. I asked him about the threat of al-Qaeda and how the U.S. military is dealing with it. Listen to this.


BLITZER: The other huge problem -- Iraq's a huge problem, Afghanistan's a huge problem. What about Pakistan right now? And I want you to get into, as much as we can, what we call drone strikes. It's a sensitive issue, the Pakistani's obviously complaining about it all the time, but under President Obama, the U.S. has intensified the drone attacks against various targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other places as well. What can you tell us about that?

MCRAVEN: Nothing.


BLITZER: I'll -- I'll rephrase -- I'll rephrase the question.


BLITZER: Here's what we know. Some of these drone strikes are organized by the CIA, but some are organized by the U.S. military, including special operations. Is that right?

MCRAVEN: What I can tell you is the military uses drone in Afghanistan routinely to conduct strikes.

BLITZER: In Afghanistan. MCRAVEN: Afghanistan.

BLITZER: But you don't want to talk about other places?

MCRAVEN: Don't want to talk about other places.

BLITZER: It's a very sensitive subject.

MCRAVEN: Then why would I talk about it?

BLITZER: Of course.


BLITZER: He's very good. I've heard top U.S. officials, Secretary Panetta and others, testify, there are fewer al-Qaeda elements left in Afghanistan today than there are in Yemen, for example, or Somalia, for that matter. Is that true?

MCRAVEN: You know, I think that's a true statement. And again, it's been a year since I've been in Afghanistan, but the number of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, you know, a year ago, numbers somewhere in the hundred or so. They can still be key inter locketers. So we're always aware of them, and where there are al-Qaeda, I know the military makes a very aggressive stance to go after them.

So they are still a problem in Afghanistan that we have to deal with. Are there more in Yemen? Based on the reports that I see and the open press reports, there certainly appear to be a lot of al-Qaeda in Yemen.

BLITZER: And what do you -- what should the U.S. be doing about that? Or in Somalia, for that matter?

MCRAVEN: Well, what I think the U.S. is doing is they're partnering with the government of Yemen. The government of Yemen has been very supportive in this partnership. And we are, again, working with the Yemeni forces so that they can take care of their own security problems. And as I made the transition from President Saleh to President Hadi, that probably went better than we would have expected. President Hadi has done a good job of stepping up to the plate and taking this threat of al-Qaeda in Yemen seriously, and because of that, the United States is, again, reaching out to him, where it is appropriate to do so.

BLITZER: I was in Cairo and Tunis with the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, about a year or so ago, maybe a little bit more. And she walked around Tahrir square and the Arab spring seem, everyone seemed to be very upbeat, very positive, very confident that democracy was moving in the right direction north Africa, in the Middle East. But now, people aren't that confident. Can you give us your assessment of what's going on in the Arab spring?

MCRAVEN: Yes, well, I'm certainly not an expert on the Arab spring. I mean, what I know is democracy is hard and I've watched it as we've tried to build democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's tough. It took us a long time as a nation to build a strong democracy. It will probably take them some time.

But, again, I'm not an expert on the dynamics of the Middle East. My job is kind of purely, in a military role, to support again, in this case, General Mattis or as required.


BLITZER: Coming up, admiral McRaven shed light on a number of different topics. Ahead, I'll discuss that with two top national security experts.


BLITZER: For the first time, the man who planned the raid who took down Osama bin Laden is giving a frank public interview about what happened that night. You heard some of it.

Let's talk about what we heard from admiral McRaven. Joining us now, two guests, Clark Kent Ervin is with the Aspen Institute's homeland security program. He's also a former inspector general over at the department of homeland security.

Also joining us, Steve Coll. He's president of the new American foundation and a staff writer at "the New Yorker," also a best-selling author.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in. You think the U.S. is really safer now that bin Laden is dead?

CLARK KENT ERVIN, ASPEN INSTITUTE AND HOMELAND SECURITY PROGRAM: Well, it's a complicated question, Wolf. There's no question that the killing of bin Laden was a huge, huge psychological victory, cut off the head of the snake, and was a great retaliation for 9/11.

On the other hand, there's no question that there are affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, and west Africa are on the march and they pose a potential threat to the homeland. Likewise, we're concerned about lone wolves.

You know, the Aurora Colorado, not far from here, incident that happened has week, could easily have been a terror attack by a lone wolf or a terrorist. So the threat picture is more complicated now than at any time in a long time and so there's a lot of work to be done.

BLITZER: Are you surprised that the number two al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, still out there, roaming around someplace?

STEVE COLL, PRESIDENT, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: It's a big area and he's gone to ground and shut off all communications. But al-Qaeda in that part of the world, along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is under enormous pressure, and I think it won't be too long before eventually he gets detected or sold out by one of his colleagues for reward moneys.

BLITZER: It's unusual that in fact, this is the first time admiral McRaven has really spoken out about any of this, publicly, on television, since the death of bin Laden.

Were you surprised that he was willing to come here to the Aspen Institute Forum, which I must say we're cosponsoring, the national security forum with "The New York Times" and CNN, were you surprised that he was willing to be public and talk about all of that, as much detail -- he was measured, but he did open up.

ERVIN: I was surprised by it, Wolf, but I think he understands, and he talked about this last night, that the American people have a right to know what they can be told about what the country is being done to defend the country. At the same time, not compromising sources and methods. So I think he walked that fine line very well last night.

BLITZER: Steve, you're a journalist like I am. Listen to this clip. We heard it but I'll play it again about the leaks. He's obviously very concerned about what the news media sometimes reports and books and elsewhere.


MCRAVEN: Are people affected by the information that comes out? You bet they are. Are lives at risk? Absolutely.


BLITZER: What did you think of the lecture he basically gave all of our journalistic colleagues?

COLL: With respect to the admiral, I mean, he deserve respect. I wouldn't take the judgment of the leader of the most secretive military unit in the United States as the basis for evaluating where the line and the first amendment in this country lies. There certainly are operational details that no responsible journalist would dispose, if they jeopardize lives in a concrete way. But I found his lecture a bit fraud, it's sweeping and typical of those on the front lines. They don't -- it's not their responsibility to judge how the first amendment operates in our society. But his voice is an important one and it was good to hear from him.

BLITZER: Do you think the Obama administration, Clark, has a leak problem?

ERVIN: It certainly appears to be the case. But on the other hand, the president seems to be determined in a way that frankly the Bush administration wasn't to go after the leakers. The attorney general has been very, very strong on this. So we'll see where this goes.

BLITZER: What do you think?

COLL: Look, the Bush administration, if you go back and look at the journalism that followed 9/11, was full of just as much national security information as the Obama administration. If anything the Obama administration has gone further than any reason American president in cracking down on whistleblowers inside U.S. government, even when their dissent involves misappropriation of taxpayer money and that sort of things. So actually, my concern about the Obama administration goes the other way. I think they are taking a hard use of the criminal statues, punish dissenters inside the government in a way that prior president haven't done.

BLITZER: He commands 66,000 special operation forces and since "the don't ask, don't tell" policy went away, he's not had one problem with gays and lesbians in his command. Were you surprised by that?

ERVIN: Well not really, Wolf. Now, that's really the history of the military. You know, during the 1940s and 50s, the segregation of the rights debates, the same shibboleths were raised about the, you know the degree to which that would compromise the forces and there was no problem there. I think, you know, we need a military that's more diverse and reflective of America in every respect. So I'm not surprised by that. But I was glad to hear the admiral say that On the Record.

BLITZER: For 20 years, I've been hearing from NATO allies, from the Israelis, they allow gays to serve openly in the military. They never understood where the U.S. had this big problem with letting gays serve openly. But that's all history now. I take it that's just the rhetoric of the past?

COLL: I think on the front lines, American military commanders, noncommissioned officers and as he put it, down range, officers down range, still have a lot of learning to do how to create the right environment for the sort of diversity that Clark correctly described to us as the goal. But it is encouraging that a commander like the admiral McRaven can still readily acknowledge that this is not a problem.

BLITZER: I've heard that from other generals and admirals, as well in this event.

Appreciate it, guys. Thank you very much, Clark. Thanks for organizing this excellent national security.

ERVIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Appreciate your thoughts, Steve. You got a new book coming out soon?

COLL: I got one out in May. But I'll keep you posted.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Does it matter if a president has served in the military? Admiral McRaven weighs in.


BLITZER: We're back with my discussion with the commander of U.S. special operations. I wanted to know what he thought about the fact that President Obama nor Mitt Romney had personal military experience.

But first, some personal thought from him.


BLITZER: What did it feel like when you were invited to sit next to the first lady up in the gallery before a joint session of the United States Congress and you were obviously introduced and the whole world was watching? What did that feel like, a Navy S.E.A.L., just a guy like you?

MCRAVEN: Well, it was quite an honor. The White House had reached out to me a couple weeks before and invited me on what have of the first lady and the president to sit in the box and I thought it was a gracious offer and I was honored to do so. And really, to help represent the men and women in uniform in addition to the joint chiefs that were present at the Sate of the Union.

BLITZER: Did you have to go through clearances and authorization from your commanders or when the commander in chief says you're up in the gallery, you're in the gallery?

MCRAVEN: Well, yes in a word. It was understood that in discussions with the secretary and the chairman, they understood the offer and as I said, I was honored to accept the offer.

BLITZER: What kind of commander in chief is he?

MCRAVEN: The president of the United States? Fantastic. Again, I'm not a political guy. I've worked in both administrations. I very much enjoyed working for President Bush. And I very much enjoy working for President Obama.

And it's, again, this isn't about politics but a commander in chief who I have the opportunity to engage with on a routine basis. And watching him and the decisions he makes along with his national security team. They're a very impressive group of guys and gals.

And so as an operational commander, I feel comfortable that when we present our best military advice to the president and his team, they take it very seriously. They consult routinely with senior leadership of the military. And they do the best they can to make the right decisions. So yes, that's my personal opinion. But I'm very, again, very impressed with the president and his national security team.

BLITZER: I've heard that from others, as well.


BLITZER: In your position, the fact that he never served in the military and Mitt Romney never served in the military, is that at all a factor that the American people should consider at all?

MCRAVEN: Well, I know from the uniform military standpoint, I mean, we serve the president and the commander in chief, and irrespective of whether they served in uniform or not. So, again, I'm not going to get into the political discussion, but I will tell you, we're proud to serve whoever sits in the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: A program note. I'll be back Monday night live from Jerusalem with a one on one interview with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as he travels through Israel.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in the SITUATION ROOM. The news continues next on CNN.