President Obama today honored outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates' four decades of service, including the past 4 1/2 years in charge of the Pentagon, by surprising him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US honor a president can give a civilian. "I can think of no better way to express the gratitude of the nation to Bob Gates than with a very special recognition," Obama said as he asked Gates to step forward to receive the award at an outdoor ceremony at the Pentagon marking his retirement.
An emotional Gates quipped that he "should have known the president was getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff," an apparent reference to last month's secret raid in Pakistan that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Gates said his tenure as defense secretary, a period in which he oversaw the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and recent US military involvement in Libya, "has been the greatest honor and privilege of my life and for that I will always be grateful." Today is Gates' last day. (Read more Robert Gates stories.)