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Panetta on Visit to Sept. 11 Memorial Says Threat ‘Very Real’

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to reporters after touring the National September 11 Memorial & Museum Sept. 6, 2011 in New York City. Photographer: Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the potential for another al-Qaeda attack in the U.S. is “very real,” as threats from affiliated militants in Yemen supplant those of the decimated leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“They continue to plan attacks and I don’t think we can take anything for granted,” Panetta said yesterday during a visit to New York’s World Trade Center site five days before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 strikes. “The potential for that kind of attack remains very real.”

Panetta’s assessment of al-Qaeda steps back from a more optimistic tone he struck in his first weeks after becoming defense secretary on July 1, when he said “strategically defeating” the terror group is within reach. The Sept. 11 attacks killed almost 3,000 people and propelled the U.S. and its allies into a decade of war that may continue for years.

“There’s no question that, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, that we have made significant progress in weakening al-Qaeda,” Panetta, 73, said. Three of al-Qaeda’s top four leaders have been killed, including Osama bin Laden in a May raid by U.S. commandos.

Still, branches of the group remain active in areas such as Somalia and Yemen, and its ideology continues to inspire militants, Panetta said.

Yemen Rising

“There’s no question that Yemen has risen to the top of the list,” he said. Work also must continue toward defeating al-Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and other areas where al-Qaeda-linked militants are plotting attacks, he said.

The arrest in recent days of senior al-Qaeda leader Younis al-Mauritani in Quetta, Pakistan, by that country’s authorities “is a tribute to the Pakistanis,” Panetta said. “This is one that frankly was particularly encouraging because he was someone that we thought was a real threat.”

Panetta, accompanied by officers from each of the five branches of the U.S. armed services, got a rain-doused tour of the 9/11 National Memorial in lower Manhattan from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The defense chief is believed to be the first Cabinet member to see the finished memorial in New York, which will be unveiled on Sept. 11 after families see the inscribed names of the 2,982 people killed in the attacks that day, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.

Recalling 9/11

Panetta, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and one-time White House budget chief, said he was on Capitol Hill on 9/11, briefing members of Congress on ocean issues as chairman of a commission.

A fellow member of the panel who had an office in New York leaned over during the meeting and told Panetta about the attacks. Panetta said he informed the lawmakers, who then ended the meeting. Everyone left the Capitol, and Panetta said he eventually rented a car and drove back to Monterey, California, where he was born and still lives.

Panetta also was a member of the board of the New York Stock Exchange at the time. He said he saw the destroyed Ground Zero when he came to New York in the days after the attack to discuss the reopening of the stock exchange.

The new memorial, called Reflecting Absence, features 30-foot waterfalls plunging down black granite walls into two square voids meant to represent the twin towers of the former World Trade Center.

Abyss in Center

Each one-acre pool then drains into another abyss in the center. A row of swamp white oak trees arrayed around each square marks the footprint of each of the towers that collapsed after being hit by American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175.

More trees cover the rest of the plaza, including a non-fruit-bearing Callery pear rescued from the disaster and nursed back to health in the Bronx. It’s now known as the “Survivor Tree.”

The plaza covers a museum, which is yet to be completed, as well as other areas, including a train station. The mayor, the majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, serves as board chairman of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

New office towers are rising on the rest of the site, including one called Freedom Tower that already is the tallest building in Lower Manhattan and is still rising under construction.

Military Participants

Panetta brought with him five members of the armed services who joined the military after the Sept. 11 attacks. The U.S. has lost at least 6,226 military and civilian Defense Department personnel in the two wars, including 4,911 killed in action.

“Our greatest strength lies in those that have been willing to serve this nation to defend it,” he told reporters traveling with him.

One of them is Navy Lieutenant Adam Jones, who entered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, his hometown, in 2002. He was part of the first class to enroll after Sept. 11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime that had harbored al-Qaeda. He has served in Iraq as well as with the Pacific fleet.

Three of the other four officers have been deployed at least once to Iraq or Afghanistan or both. The fourth, U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Nikea Natteal of Yuma, Arizona, has served in intelligence for the Navy’s Sixth Fleet for Europe and Africa and following the earthquake in Haiti.

Panetta will take part in further anniversary ceremonies at the Pentagon over the coming days.

President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush will attend New York City’s observance on Sept. 11, the first time a president has participated in the annual ceremony.

Rain and fog forced the cancellation of Panetta’s next planned stop yesterday in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where one of the four airliners commandeered by al-Qaeda hijackers crashed after the passengers thwarted their efforts to strike the White House or the U.S. Capitol in Washington, according to the 2004 report by an independent bipartisan commission.

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