Leon Panetta’s Bin Laden Bet

Oct 25, 2011 9:56am
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It was a bet with CIA Director Leon Panetta that Ted Balestreri never thought would come through.

On New Year’s Eve, Balestreri, a co-owner of Monterey’s Sardine Factory restaurant, was hosting a dinner party with 28 friends, among them long-time friend, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who at the time was the CIA Director.

Several guests teased Balestreri about when he was going to serve them a bottle of 1870 Château Lafite Rothschild, priced at $15,000, from the restaurant’s rare wines collection.

Balestreri told ABC News that he recalls saying, “if Leon catches Osama bin Laden, we’ll open that bottle. ” According to Balestreri, Panetta immediately replied to much laughter, “You’re on!”

“I was  just kidding with him,” said Balestreri.  “It was kind of a joke, that if you caught bin Laden then we’ll open it.”    He says he often teased his friend, “How the heck are you going to find bin Laden when you can’t find your golf ball. Not knowing the reality, I thought he had nothing.”

After several months had passed Balestreri says he had forgotten about the bet when on May 1 he took a call from Panetta’s wife, Sylvia.  It was the day a team of US Navy Seals had killed bin Laden in a raid on his compound in Pakistan, in a mission directed by Panetta’s team at the CIA.

Balestreri recalled that his cellphone rang that night while he was having dinner and though he usually doesn’t take calls during dinner, “it kept ringing so I thought it must be something important.  That’s when I realized the son of a gun had set me up.”

He said Sylvia Panetta told him, “Get the wine-opener ready!”

Balestreri said he had forgotten what she was calling about, and  “she wouldn’t tell me.”  All she would say was that he should turn on his television.   “I went and turned the TV on because I didn’t know, it had been five  months.  How can you remember? Then I realized it.”

“He found his golf ball and the wine that day, all in the same day,” he jokes.

A recent New York Times profile of Panetta brought the bet to light.   Panetta told the paper that after the raid he called his wife in California to  “Call Ted…and tell him he owes me that bottle of wine.”

A Pentagon spokesman says Panetta called his wife minutes before President Obama was to address the nation about the success of the bin Laden mission.

Though they’ve seen each other several times since that day,  Balestreri says Panetta still hasn’t collected on the bet.   He clarifies that the bet wasn’t for Panetta to keep the bottle, but for those who attended the New Year’s dinner to get a sip.  “We’re going to open it on a special day when we can all get together, ” he says.

And because there were so many dinner guests in on the bet, he jokes, “I’m going to serve it with an eyedropper!”

Balestreri says he’s had to eat a lot of crow since losing the bet and he’s learned a valuable lesson, “That’s the last time. I won’t underestimate anyone.”

Though on the losing side of the bet, Balestreri has nothing but praise for his old friend’s decades of government service.

“He’s wonderful guy.  We’re very fortunate to have an American hero like that. He’s what America’s all about.”

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