In Afghan Blast, Panetta at Greater Risk Than Reported
Runway explosion was a close call, say defense officials
By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 16, 2012 8:37 AM CDT
United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta greets military personnel before boarding his plane to return to Washington, DC on March 16, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.   (AP Photo/Scott Olson, POOL)

(Newser) – New details in the Afghan truck explosion around the time of Leon Panetta's arrival: The driver was an Afghan interpreter working at Camp Bastion who apparently aimed his vehicle at two top NATO commanders waiting for Panetta's plane to arrive Wednesday. Defense officials initially downplayed the incident. The attack failed, but had his plane arrived five minutes earlier, it's "possible" Panetta would have been on the tarmac as well, officials tell the New York Times. (The Washington Post has a similar story, saying the Pentagon has acknowledged that the breach "much more serious than officials first reported.")

Original reports had the truck barreling towards "a group of Marines" who were lined up to greet Panetta, but now defense officials confirm that it was actually Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the top commander in Helmand, and his British deputy Brig. Gen. Stuart Skeats. It's unclear whether the interpreter knew Panetta was arriving; he died of his burns before he could say. Three other interpreters at the camp, including the attacker's brother and father, have been detained for questioning.