SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: This is a very special honor for me, to be able to have this opportunity. I intended to do this last year, but weather prevented me from being able to land. So I'm honored to finally have the opportunity to be able to visit this memorial.
It's been 11 years tomorrow since the worst terrorist attack against the United States in our history. I want to honor and pay tribute to those who died on 9/11, and to honor and pay tribute to their families as well. I came here to Shanksville to extend our nation's deepest gratitude to the heroes of Flight 93 and to their families.
The 40 passengers and crew of that flight responded with selflessness, determination and tremendous courage. And at the cost of their own lives they made the fateful decision to fight back, and in so doing they successfully prevented an attack on the United States Capitol.
I am particularly thankful to them, because on that fateful day I was at the U.S. Capitol.
Their example continues to inspire and to strengthen our nation. What they did was to put their lives on the line in order to help protect this country. And since that day, millions of Americans, men and women in uniform, have stepped forward to serve since 9/11. And like the heroes of Flight 93, they put their lives on the line for our country.
For more than a decade, they have fought to ensure that such an attack would never happen again. And today, we gather here to renew our pledge. Our pledge to those who died on 9/11, our pledge to their families and our pledge to all Americans that we will remain forever vigilant against threats to our homeland and that nobody -- nobody attacks the United States of America and gets away with it.
We have brought bin Laden to justice. We've decimated the leadership of Al Qaida. We have seriously undermined their ability to plan and conduct an attack similar to 9/11. And while Al Qaida still remains a threat, we have dealt a serious blow to their network.
Our troops are still fighting to deny safe haven to Al Qaida and to their extremist allies in Afghanistan. And we are continuing to fight them in Yemen, in Somalia and in North Africa.
Make no mistake, we will pursue and we will fight them wherever they go. There is no place that will be safe for them to hide from justice.
Our nation, as a result of the sacrifice here and the result of the tremendous sacrifice of those who have served this nation over these last 10 years, is stronger and safer because of those sacrifices -- of our military, of our intelligence personnel and of the heroes of Flight 93 and their families.
We pay tribute to them as heroes. As I've often said, one of the toughest jobs I have is to write notes to the families of those who have been lost in battle. And with each note, I express the tremendous sorrow that we all have for their loss.
But I also say that they gave their lives for all they loved. They gave their lives for the families they loved and for the country they loved. And there is no greater sacrifice, than to do that.
That's what these heroes did here. As a result, they are forever American heroes. And we honor those, and all of those who have fought and died for this country, who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend the United States of America.
This is hallowed ground, this is hallowed ground, because this is the final resting place of American patriots.
God bless them, and God bless their families, and God bless the United States of America.
STAFF: (inaudible) -- a few questions.
Q: You talked about the threat that Al Qaida still poses, but also the leadership's been decimated. Could you, though, assess overall the threat you see posed by Al Qaida, given what's happened in North Africa, Yemen and so on?
Some people are saying that actually the threat is -- is no less, it's just merely moved geographically. Could you speak to that?
SEC. PANETTA: I think the -- the threat that was represented by those who attacked this country on 9/11 and were led by Osama bin Laden in that attack, that the efforts that have been made by military and intelligence officials to go after those that led that attack and that continue to plan similar attacks on this country have been very successful.
We clearly have eliminated the spiritual leader of that movement. We've decimated some of the very key leadership in Al Qaida. There is no question in my mind that we have impacted on their command and control and capability to be able to plan similar 9/11 attacks on this country.
But having said that, Al Qaida, terrorism still remains a threat, and it's for that reason that we are continuing to pursue them, in Yemen, and in Somalia, and in North Africa, and elsewhere. And we will continue to do that until we clearly have made this country safe from that kind of threat.
I think we've made tremendous progress, I think people who have conducted these operations against Al Qaida deserve tremendous credit, but we need to continue the fight to make sure that it never happens again.
Q: Secretary Panetta, you talk a lot about the troops. You said recently that you recently reminded Americans that there's a war going on. I'm wondering, with the 9/11 anniversary tomorrow, how concerned are you that Americans seem to be tuning out especially with all the casualties we are still seeing coming in?
SEC. PANETTA: I -- I pray that as we remember 9/11 and the terrible things that took place on 9/11, that we will also take the time to remind ourselves of the sacrifices that have been made by those who have fought and died in order to make sure that it not happen again.
And my concern is that too often we do not express our concern and our attention for those that are fighting and dying for this country. We're continuing to lose good men and women in battle in Afghanistan. They're putting their lives on the line every day. And every day they are fighting to make sure that this country is protected.
We cannot forget that sacrifice. We cannot forget that sacrifice. Because in many ways it is what makes America strong. It's what we're about. It's the spirit that was reflected in the heroes here who were willing on a plane to suddenly charge ahead, knowing -- knowing that it was very likely that they were giving their lives for their country.
That kind of sacrifice, that kind of commitment, that kind of dedication, that kind of courage is what makes this country strong, and we had damn well better remember that every day.
Q: Mr. Secretary, there was a hitch in the plan to transfer Afghan prisoners over to Afghan control in Afghanistan over the weekend. Can you explain to us what -- what exactly the U.S. concern was? How many prisoners remain in U.S. control? And when do you think that might be settled?
SEC. PANETTA: I had the opportunity to talk with President Karzai last night and expressed to him that it was important to celebrate this day where we are transferring authority over a large number of prisoners to the Afghan -- Afghanistan government. It's a -- it's an important step towards recognizing their sovereignty and recognizing their -- their governance and the fact that they have -- they have assumed greater responsibility for the security of their country.
We want to make sure that they in every way abide by the agreements that we have worked out with them, and I indicated to the president that as we celebrate this great event and note the achievement that has occurred here, that we have to continue to work to make sure that pursuant to those agreements we continue to detain those that are a threat to -- to their country.
He -- he accepted that and expressed a willingness to continue to work with us in order to achieve that goal.
So I'm confident that, you know, as always, we always run into bumps in the road as we deal with various things, but in the end I'm confident that we're going to be able to work this out, that we will complete the agreements with regards to the detainees.
STAFF: (inaudible) -- Philadelphia Inquirer?
SEC. PANETTA: Okay.
Q: One last question.
SEC. PANETTA: Sure.
Q: Is there any way you can confirm the report that the number two Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been killed in Yemen?
SEC. PANETTA: Not at this time.
STAFF: Thank you, everyone.
SEC. PANETTA: Okay.
Sean P Eagan
Former Chairman American Cold War Veterans