Panetta: We didn't see Osama bin Laden die

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) White House/Pete Souza

President Obama in the Situation Room
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.
White House

CIA Director Leon Panetta says neither President Obama nor himself actually watched as Osama bin Laden was shot to death by U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan.

It has been widely reported and understood, thanks in large part to the White House photo above, that Mr. Obama and his closest advisers watched the whole mission unfold via a live video feed from the helmet-mounted camera of a Navy SEAL.

The White House was careful never to say explicitly that Mr. Obama watched the entire incident transpire, instead saying he had received unspecified real-time video and audio information as the mission unfolded.

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But in the latest nuanced twist in the official story coming from the top level of the American government, Panetta told PBS' News Hour on Tuesday that there had been "a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes that we really didn't know just exactly what was going on."

Panetta's remarks don't make it clear what Mr. Obama and other senior officials were looking at so intently in the photo released by the White House, taken during the mission. They may have had a live video feed from the SEAL team which was cut as the elite commandos entered the concrete compound.

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"Finally Adm. [William] McRaven came back and said he had picked up the word "Geronimo," which was the code word that represented they got bin Laden," Panetta told PBS.

McRaven is the Navy commander in charge of U.S. Special Operations. He was reportedly watching the mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan via a live video feed in Afghanistan. It's not clear whether that same feed was being relayed directly to the concerned looking crowd in the White House Situation Room, or if they were getting separate, secondary information.

NewsHour host Jim Lehrer asked the CIA director whether bin Laden might have said anything to the American troops before he was killed. His response: "To be frank, I don't think he had a lot of time to say anything."

"We always assume from the beginning that the likelihood was that he was gonna be killed," Panetta told "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric earlier on Tuesday. "But if perchance he were to be captured, I think the approach was to take him quickly to Bagram [Airfield, in Afghanistan], transfer him to a ship offshore, and then have the principals at the White House decide what next steps would be taken."

Panetta's remarks are just the latest clarifications of the details surrounding the raid. In a much more glaring reversal, the White House admitted Tuesday that bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed.

If the live video feed from Pakistan was lost, or never quite as live as it was initially said to have been, that may actually help to explain the amorphous nature of the White House's official account over the past three days.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.

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