Robert Gates: The soldiers' secretary

Katie Couric interviews the outgoing secretary about his years of service, challenges, and what's ahead for America's military

CBS All Access
This video is available on Paramount+

It is not at all unusual to hear the Pentagon being criticized for its bloat, bureaucracy and spending binges. But what is surprising about the latest criticism is that it doesn't come from an outsider with an anti-military agenda: It comes from the secretary of defense himself.

Robert Gates has an impressive resume with more than 30 years of government service and he has just announced he is leaving next month.

At the Pentagon, the defense secretary is called "Sec Def." The title he might prefer is the Soldiers' Secretary, because he says his top priority is the men and women in uniform - a priority, he says, that is often neglected by the Pentagon bureaucracy.

Sec. Gates' presidential word association
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates plays a revealing game of word association about the eight presidents he has served under.

But first we wanted to learn more about the Special Forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden and what was going through the secretary's mind as he watched it unfold with the president in the White House Situation Room.

Special Report: The killing of Osama bin Laden

"It was a perfect fusion of intelligence collection, intelligence analysis, and military operations," Sec. Gates told Katie Couric.

Asked if he was a nervous wreck while the operation was being carried out, Gates acknowledged, "Yes."

"What were you thinking as you watched this unfold in the Situation Room with all those other people like the president and vice president and secretary of state?" Couric asked.

"Well, I think like the rest, I was just transfixed. And, of course, my heart went to my mouth when the helicopter landed in the courtyard, 'cause I knew that wasn't part of the plan. But these guys were just amazing," Gates recalled.

Extra: U.S.-Pakistan relations
Extra: Inside the Situation Room
Extra: A "gutsy" call

After the mission, Gates went to meet personally with the SEAL team. "I joked with 'em a little bit. I said, 'You guys have spent the last several days being debriefed, would you like to debrief me on what happened in Washington, while we were all watching you all?' And we had some good laughs over that. But obviously, an amazing, amazing group of people," he said.

"You are the ultimate soldier secretary. And I can't imagine the pride you must have felt meeting these young men," Couric remarked.

"It was awesome," Gates remembered.

But while he had confidence in the SEALs before the mission, Gates told us he was very nervous about the intelligence on the mission. "I was very concerned, frankly. I had real reservations about the intelligence. My worry was the level of uncertainty about whether bin Laden was even in the compound. There wasn't any direct evidence that he was there. It was all circumstantial. But it was the best information that we had since probably 2001," he explained.

"And did you feel you had to strike while the iron was hot, if you will?" Couric asked.

"I think everybody agreed that we needed to act and act pretty promptly," he replied.

Especially, Gates says, President Obama - the eighth commander in chief he has served.

"I worked for a lot of these guys. And this is one of the most courageous calls, decisions that I think I've ever seen a president make. For all of the concerns that I've just been talking about. The uncertainty of the intelligence. The consequences of it going bad. The risk to the lives of the Americans involved. It was a very gutsy call," Gates said.

"You could see it in his face, in that photograph. What was it like being near him in that room?" Couric asked.

"Let's just say there wasn't a lot of conversation. By anybody in the room," Gates said.

Produced by Tom Anderson