WASHINGTON, June 27, 2010— -- CIA Director Leon Panetta says that Osama bin Laden "is in an area of the tribal areas of Pakistan." But Panetta conceded the agency has not had good intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts since the early months of the war in Afghanistan, which began nine years ago.
In an exclusive interview on ABC's This Week, Panetta told anchor Jake Tapper, "It's been a while. I think it goes back almost to the early 2000s, you know in terms of actually when [bin Laden] was leaving from Afghanistan to Pakistan that we had the last precise information about where he might be located. Since then it has been very difficult to get any intelligence on his exact location."
Panetta called efforts to disrupt al Qaeda operations "the most aggressive operations in the history of the CIA in that part of the world." More than half of al Qaeda's leadership has been taken down, he said.
Panetta pointed to a recent success in taking out al Qaeda's No. 3 leader Mustafa Ahmed Muhammad Uthman Abu al-Yazid, known as Shaikh Sa'id al-Masri. "If we keep that pressure on, we think ultimately we can flush out bin Laden and [Ayman al] Zawahiri and get after them."
The number of al Qaeda remaining in Afghanistan, Panetta said, is "relatively small."
"At most, we're looking at 50 to 100, maybe less," he said. "It's in that vicinity. There's no question that the main location of al Qaeda is in the tribal areas of Pakistan."
The CIA director said "there are some serious problems" with the war in Afghanistan but maintained that progress is being made.
"It's harder, it's slower than I think anyone anticipated. But at the same time we are seeing an increase in violence," he told Tapper. June has been the deadliest month in the war for NATO forces in Afghanistan and the second deadliest for U.S. forces with 52 killed.
The key to success or failure in Afghanistan, Panetta said, "is whether the Afghans accept responsibility, are able to deploy an effective army and police force to maintain stability."
Progress, he said is seen "in the fact that there's less deterioration as far as the ability of the Taliban to maintain control. So we are seeing elements of progress, but this is going to be tough."
Recent terror attacks on the homeland of the kind seen in the Christmas Day airline bomb attempt, the Fort Hood shooting and the Times Square bomb plot represent "the most serious threat to the United States right now," Panetta said.
"They're using somebody who doesn't have a record in terrorism, it's tougher to track them. If they're using people who are already here, who are in hiding and suddenly decide to do an attack, that's another potential treat that they're engaged in. The third is the individual who decides to self-radicalize," he said.
Panetta denied reports that an American cleric in Yemen, Anwar al Awlaki, is on an assassination list but said he's connected to several terror plots.
"Awlaki is a terrorist, and yes, he's a U.S. citizen, but he is first and foremost a terrorist and we're going to treat him like a terrorist," he said. "We don't have an assassination list, but I can tell you this, we have a terrorist list and he's on it."
Though he didn't directly acknowledge the CIA's predator drone program, Panetta said critics that say U.S. drone strikes violate U.S. and international law are "dead wrong."
"We have a responsibility to defend this country and that's what we're doing," Panetta said.
In his first network news interview since becoming CIA director, Panetta gave a surprisingly candid assessment of several other global hot spots.
Iran continues to work on nuclear weapons designs, Panetta said, and they have "enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons. They do have to enrich it, fully, in order to get there."
Panetta said, "We would estimate that if they made that decision, it would probably take a year to get there, probably another year to develop the kind of weapon delivery system in order to make that viable."
Sanctions, Panetta said, "will have some impact" on Iran and "could help weaken the regime." But, he said, "Will it deter them from their ambitions with regards to nuclear capability? Probably not."
Asked by Tapper about the likelihood that Israel will strike Iran's nuclear facilities in the next two years, Panetta said Israel feels "more strongly that Iran has already made the decision to proceed with the bomb."
But, he added, "I think they know that sanctions will have an impact, they know that if we continue to push Iran from a diplomatic point of view, that we can have some impact, and I think they're willing to give us the room to be able to try to change Iran diplomatically and culturally and politically as opposed to changing them militarily."
Panetta weighed in on the increasing military tensions on the Korean peninsula, including the recent sinking of a South Korean warship. South Korea has blamed the sinking on a torpedo attack by North Korea, after international investigators examined wreckage from the sunken vessel.
Panetta said the attack could be part of a succession plan to "establish credibility" for the son of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un.
"That makes it a dangerous period," Panetta said. However, "In the end, they always back away from the brink and I think they'll do that now," he said.
A nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist is a threat that continues to worry Panetta, but the CIA director said, "We are now in a world in which cyber warfare is very real. It could threaten our grid system. It could threaten our financial system. It could paralyze this country, and I think that's an area we have to pay a lot more attention to."