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Leon Panetta: Master of Change

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on the threats of tomorrow, the operation that killed bin Laden and the lessons that enabled him to succeed—time and again—at the highest levels of government
The then–defense secretary Leon Panetta presented former Army SSG Clinton L. Romesha with the Medal of Honor flag at the Pentagon, Feb. 12, 2013. Photo by Glenn Fawcett, Department of Defense
The then–defense secretary Leon Panetta presented former Army SSG Clinton L. Romesha with the Medal of Honor flag at the Pentagon, Feb. 12, 2013. Photo by Glenn Fawcett, Department of Defense

Leon Panetta is one of the most accomplished leaders of our modern age, having served both the military and civilian worlds in the highest capacities. As the 23rd secretary of defense (2011–2013), Panetta oversaw the final removal of American troops from Iraq and the beginning of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. As director of the CIA (2009–2011) under President Barack Obama, he helped to oversee the operation that resulted in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.

Panetta also served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton (1994–1997), director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (1993–1994), and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1977–1993). Early in his career, Panetta was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, serving as an intelligence officer from 1964 to 1966 and receiving the Army Commendation Medal.

After dedicating 50 years of his life to public service, Panetta retired from public life last year. He now runs the Panetta Institute for Public Policy with his wife, Sylvia. This October, Penguin Press will publish Panetta’s memoir, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace.

What was one of the most important lessons you learned during your early career that later helped you succeed?

When I got my first job in D.C. after the Army, I was a legislative assistant to Senate Minority Whip Tom Kuchel of California. When I first got back to D.C., he brought his assistants into his office. I remember him saying to be careful, because we would be subject to lots of temptations in D.C. from people trying to influence his vote. He said we always need to remember [that] our first responsibility is to protect the people of the nation, including the people of California. He said, “Don’t forget, when you get up in the morning, you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror.” I always remembered that. In whatever job you are in, you must be very honest with the people around you, and you have to always make decisions that in your conscience are the right ones.

You successfully adapted to many different jobs in Washington—everything from congressman to chief of staff to CIA director to secretary of defense. What’s your secret to handling change so well?

I’ve always operated on the principle that if you do your very best, other opportunities will come along. I usually set goals for myself that I wanted to achieve. I went after those goals. You need determination and the will never to give up to be able to take the hill.

What do you remember most from your time in the Army?

When I served in the Army, it was during the height of the Vietnam War. My job was to brief Soldiers who were going to Vietnam, to tell them what they could expect when they got there. I remember thinking at the time that the men I was talking to would soon be in combat, and that some of them might lose their lives. Years later, when I visited the wall [Vietnam Veterans Memorial] in Washington, D.C., I saw some of their names. It was profoundly moving.

Your job as secretary of defense required you to be involved in the highest levels of government. But you also interacted with troops. Does any particular memory from those occasions stand out to you?

I spent a lot of time when I was secretary of defense visiting with troops in battle zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were always special moments when I was able to talk to those warriors who were out there putting their lives on the line every day.

I spoke to a big contingent of troops near Kabul. I usually handed out coins to the Soldiers. I had long lines where [up to 500] Soldiers would come through. There was a young Soldier from Monterey [CA] who knew my family and me. We recognized each other. I suddenly understood that our men and women in uniform, who put their lives on the line, come from everywhere, including your hometown.

You helped balance the budget with the Clinton administration. What advice do you have for current leadership amid budget cuts on how to preserve the strength and readiness of the Guard?

The work I did on a number of budgets helped me balance the defense budget. I had a lot of knowledge. When I became secretary of defense, one of the first things handed to me was the challenge of cutting the defense budget. Based on my experience, I was not to just slash programs across the board, but to use that opportunity to develop what we wanted for the future.

I had a lot of help. We came up with key defense strategies that the president blessed. We were going to be leaner and smaller as a force but had to remain agile and deployable. We had to maintain a presence in [the] Middle East and elsewhere. We had to be prepared to fight two wars at the same time, [to] invest in things like [Special Forces] and to mobilize quickly with Guard and Reserve Components.

It is important to our readiness to have National Guard and Reserve forces capable of responding quickly to crisis. We learned a lot in the last 10 years of war in regard to how the Guard and Reserve can be very effective at going to war and fighting alongside our [Active Duty] Soldiers and Marines. I’d be very careful about doing anything that hurts the readiness of the Guard and Reserve Components. They are very important.

After all of your deliberations, when it came time to greenlight the raid that would kill Osama bin Laden, what was that conversation like?

We never had a 100 percent positive ID on bin Laden. We had a lot of intelligence that there was a good chance he was there, but never 100 percent. When we took it to the National Security Council, and the president asked the question “Should we do the operation?”, a lot of people were concerned and thought it was too risky. When the president asked me what I thought, I said, “I have an old formula I used when I was in Congress. When you have to face a tough decision, pretend you are asking an average citizen in your district: ‘What would you do if you knew what I knew?’ If an average citizen knew we had the information that we had, I believe most would say we really do have to conduct this operation, and that we would regret it if we don’t.” I had tremendous confidence in our SEALs to make the operation work. The president didn’t make a decision right away. The next morning I got the call. It was a go. It was a great relief. Everyone wanted this to succeed.

In your mind, what are the top three threats to the U.S. in the years ahead, and what are some things the military can do to respond to those threats?

I think we will face the threat of terrorism. Even though we have been successful going after the core al-Qaeda leadership, what we are seeing shows us that terrorism remains a very real threat against the United States. With regard to terrorism, continuing to emphasize Special Forces and intelligence operations are extremely important to national security.

The potential for cyberattack is another very real threat. Cybertechnology now is reaching the stage where a cyberattack could paralyze the country. Cyberattack is the next Pearl Harbor.

Third, I think we are going to be facing a number of threats in different parts of the world. It is really important to develop the capability of other nations to secure themselves. We address this in our strategy. When it comes to helping other countries secure themselves, it is important to use a creative approach. We can use rotational deployments. We can send troops into countries to help them build strong alliances.

What advice would you give a young person just starting out in the military today?

The military remains not only a great opportunity to serve your country, but also a great career for anybody who remains interested in serving the nation. In a democracy, we all have the opportunity to give back to our country. There is no place you can do it better than in the military.

What are your thoughts on the role of the Guard today as deployment missions wind down?

The National Guard is a vital part of our defense force. When I was in the Army, the Guard and Reserve forces were isolated to their communities. When I was secretary of defense, I saw that the Guard and Reserve are very much a part of our fighting force. We ought to continue to activate the Guard and Reserve so they can go in and engage in the missions our defense forces are working on. We need to make sure they are very much on the frontline.

What is next on the horizon for you?

I have been in public service for over 50 years. I want to be able to continue to serve in some capacity. I am [publishing] a book on my career, and my wife and I have formed the Panetta Institute. Our goal is to inspire young people to public service. That is the fulfillment of our lives.


Photo from Leon Panetta