WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama, in some of his most blunt remarks to date, said on Monday that Osama bin Laden would have escaped if the United States had sought Pakistan's permission ahead of the raid on the al Qaeda leader's compound.
Obama administration officials have previously justified the decision not to involve Islamabad by citing the risk that bin Laden might somehow be tipped off and flee his compound in Abbottabad before the team of Navy SEALs arrived.
Leon Panetta, then the director of the CIA and now defense secretary, said in an interview with TIME magazine shortly after the May 2011 raid that there was a concern that the Pakistanis "might alert the targets."
But in Monday's presidential foreign policy debate against Republican opponent Mitt Romney, Obama presented such risk as a certainty.
"If we had asked Pakistan (for) permission, we would not have gotten him," Obama said.
The bin Laden raid was one of the many issues Obama used to differentiate himself from his opponent.
Romney - during his failed bid for the 2008 Republican nomination - criticized Obama for warning publicly that, if Islamabad didn't act, he would go into Pakistan to get high value targets like bin Laden. Romney suggested such comments were not helpful in building ties.
On Monday, Romney said he also would have ordered the raid.
"We had to go into Pakistan. We had to go in there to get Osama bin Laden. That was the right thing to do," Romney said.
The question of who in Pakistan might have known about bin Laden's whereabouts is still a matter of speculation.
The Pakistani ambassador to the United States at the time of the raid, Husain Haqqani, told a forum in Washington in August that he believed someone somewhere in Pakistan must have known -- a similar sentiment echoed by Panetta.
"I don't have any hard evidence, so I can't say it for a fact. There's nothing that proves the case. But as I said, my personal view is that somebody somewhere probably had that knowledge," Panetta told CBS' "60 Minutes" program in January.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Jim Loney)