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

Gates says the death of bin Laden could end up being be a "game changer" in the war in Afghanistan, partly because the al Qaeda leader won't be around to obstruct a possible deal with the Taliban.

"If we keep the military pressure on and continue to hold what we seized over the last year and expand the security envelope, a change in the relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban could, in fact, this fall or winter, create the circumstances where a reconciliation process could go forward," Gates explained.

"What would you say to the majority of Americans who say, 'Now, we've got Bin Laden, now it's time for the troops to come home'?" Couric asked.

"I would say that we are getting the upper hand. We have over the last 18 months put in place, for the first time, the resources necessary to ensure that this threat does not rebuild, does not reemerge once we're gone. I think we could be in a position by the end of this year, where we have turned the corner in Afghanistan," Gates said.

"And more troops could come home?" Couric asked.

"And more troops could come home," Gates agreed.

"You don't see the troop withdrawal, though, being accelerated this summer because of bin Laden's death?" Couric asked.

"I think it's premature. I think we just don't know. It's only been a week. And people are already drawing historical conclusions. I think that's a little quick," Gates said.

In his own history of more than 30 years of government service, Robert Gates has developed a reputation of being diplomatic but direct in his relationships with both foreign leaders and presidents.

We talked about that on a flight from Riyadh to Baghdad inside the "Silver Bullet" - Gates' airborne office, which is an Airstream trailer strapped to the floor of one of his C-17 military planes.

We asked about the meeting he had just had in Saudi Arabia with King Abdullah.

"I don't pull any punches and neither does he. And it goes back to the very first time I ever met him. And I said, 'You know, I'm an old CIA guy. I'm not a diplomat so I'm just gonna tell you what I think and you tell me what you think. And maybe that's a better way to go forward,'" Gates said.

Asked if the king liked that, Gates said, "Yeah, absolutely."

Gates started in the CIA as an analyst in the 1960s, and he worked his way up the intelligence ladder in the Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. He has spent years studying highly classified and frequently disturbing information.

"What scares you the most? What worries you?" Couric asked.

"I think what I and most of us would say, it would be a terrorist with a weapon of mass destruction," Gates said.

"In this country?" Couric asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"Or anywhere in the world?" Couric asked.

"Well, anywhere, but especially in this country," Gates said.

Asked how likely that is, Gates said, "For years, we've received intelligence that they're trying to acquire a weapon of mass destruction. So far, they've been singularly unsuccessful, as far as we know. But it is the one thing that could be a huge challenge."

Gates surprised the Senate at his confirmation hearing in 2006 when he said that the U.S. was not winning the war in Iraq after President George W. Bush nominated him to be defense secretary.

But five years later, as we talked at the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad, across from one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces, Gates told us the U.S. military surge - the much debated and criticized deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Iraq - turned the situation around.