Panetta Met With Security Breach In Afghanistan

Mar 14, 2012
Originally published on March 14, 2012 10:10 pm
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today in southern Afghanistan, a stolen truck was driven onto an airfield moments before the secretary of defense was set to land there. The car crashed and the driver was in flames. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was not hurt. The military is trying to determine whether the incident was an intended attack on the secretary, whose visit comes at a time of great tension, with a U.S. soldier in custody for allegedly killing 16 Afghans.

NPR's Larry Abramson is traveling with the secretary and he joins me now. Larry, first, where did this happen and what are you hearing about what happened?

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: This happened at Camp Bastion. It's an airfield at in Helmand Province in the southwest, as you noted. And that's really all we know. And this is something that the press corps, which is traveling with the secretary, only found out about nine hours after the incident happened. It was very perplexing to us. We didn't notice anything going on the base when the secretary landed. And after this incident happened, he went in with a scheduled address to troops and nobody seemed to be concerned.

SIEGEL: In the description of what happened, so far as you know, is that the driver emerged from the car in flames but the car itself was not necessarily in flames. Is that right?

ABRAMSON: That's right. He was on fire, the car was not on fire. Those are the details that were getting from defense officials. They're saying there's no evidence that there were any explosives in this car. They're saying it's not even clear that this was, in fact, an attack on the secretary and that we shouldn't assume it is. It is a coincidence that this would happen right at the time the secretary was making his visit.

His visit was kept secret to the general public. But, of course, members of the military base, where he was visiting, didn't know about it because they were all gathered in the tents waiting for him. And the gentleman who was on fire in that car is said to be an Afghan national, not a member of the armed forces of this country. And we don't really have any more details about who he is.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about something else that happened on Secretary Panetta's visit. We heard that the Marines, where Panetta was speaking, had to leave their weapons outside the tent. Would you know about that?

ABRAMSON: That's right, Robert. Secretary Panetta was scheduled to have come into this tent. There were about 200 Marines and about 20 members of the armed Afghan National Forces, and there were also British soldiers and soldiers from about seven other nations, I believe. And all of a sudden, they made an announcement that any Marines that had their weapons in this tent needed to stack them outside. And they did this promptly.

And when we asked why they were doing that, they said, well, normally the Afghan army soldiers, who'd come in, did not bring their weapons into this tent. And they wanted to make a statement of equality, solidarity; that the Marines also would not have their weapons. And I'm told by members of the press corps who basically said it's quite often that usually the Marines do hold on to their weapons when high-ranking officials come in.

It was unusual for them to do this only minutes before the secretary came in. They're saying this was a decision by the base commander. It had nothing to do with this incident.

SIEGEL: This is, of course, a time of great tension. An American soldier is in custody for killing 16 Afghans, it is alleged. Will Secretary Panetta address that explicitly during this visit?

ABRAMSON: He definitely addressed that and the Quran burning, which you know happened a few weeks ago - what the military is saying were accidental burnings of the Quran, and that have led to demonstrations and attacks here. And he said very specifically to the Marines who were gathered that they shouldn't let those incidents or any other incident deter them from their mission, which is to fight back at the Taliban and to deny al-Qaida any kind of stronghold in Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Larry Abramson. He's in Kabul. He's traveling with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Thanks a lot, Larry.

ABRAMSON: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.