He also gave a sobering account of the war in Afghanistan, saying the Taliban seemed to be strengthening with a stepped-up campaign of violence, even as US-led forces undermine the Islamist movement with attacks on its leadership.
Of greatest concern, he said, was al-Qaeda’s reliance on operatives without previous records or those living in the US.
“We are engaged in the most aggressive operations in the history of the CIA in that part of the world, and the result is that we are disrupting their leadership,” Mr Panetta told ABC television’s “This Week”.
The rare assessment from the US spy chief comes as President Barack Obama builds up US forces in Afghanistan to prop up the government and prevent al-Qaeda from returning. Mr Panetta said only 50 to 100 militants were believed to be operating inside Afghanistan.
Mr Panetta said the al-Qaeda leadership was at its weakest point since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, but admitted that he had not had reliable intelligence on the location of the group’s leader since “the early 2000s”.
“Since then, it’s been very difficult to get any intelligence on his exact location,” he said. “He is, as is obvious, in very deep hiding … He’s in an area of the tribal areas of Pakistan.”
Denying the world’s most wanted man safe haven on the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been an aim of Western policy since the Sept 11 attacks, when the Taliban in effect spurned a US demand to hand over the al-Qaeda chief.
Taliban militants, Mr Panetta said, “with regards to some of the directed violence, they seem to be stronger. But the fact is, we are undermining their leadership and that I think is moving in the right direction.”
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst in the nine-year war, with the Taliban stepping up their campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations, particularly in their Kandahar heartland.
Some 80 foreign troops have been killed so far in June, making it the deadliest month for international forces since the war began in late 2001. More than 300 troops have been killed this year compared with about 520 for all of 2009.