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The Interview: Citizen Statesman

with Janet Reilly

Leon Panetta in Washington, D.C., during a 2012 interview for Discovery’s The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, in which White House chiefs of staff like Panetta, who held the role during the Clinton administration, look back on the job. | Photo courtesy of David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images.


There aren’t too many people … No, scratch that. There isn’t anyone who has a résumé like Leon Panetta. Eight-term congressman from California. Director of the Office of Management and Budget. White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Director of the CIA and secretary of defense under President Barack Obama.

Born in Monterey, California, to Italian immigrant parents who owned a restaurant, Panetta caught the bug for public service at a young age. His first elected office was at Monterey High School, and he remained active in student politics at Santa Clara University, where he earned his bachelor of arts and law degrees.

In the mid-1960s, after a stint in the military, Panetta and his young family headed east to the nation’s capital, where he worked as a legislative assistant to Republican Senator Thomas Kuchel. The rest, as they say, is history.

Janet Reilly

Talking with Leon Panetta is like peering behind the curtain at some of America’s most historic events of the last 50 years. “I’ve seen Washington at its best and I’ve seen Washington at its worst,” he reflects. Today, Panetta’s son, U.S. Representative Jimmy Panetta, serves the 20th District of California, as his father once did.

Since 2013, Panetta has been the chairman of The Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which he and his wife, Sylvia, cofounded in 1997. Located at California State University, Monterey Bay, the nonpartisan center facilitates public service opportunities in government and politics for future leaders.

Last month, I caught up with Panetta over Zoom. We spoke about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, his dealings with Vladimir Putin and the current situation in Ukraine. Panetta’s easy laugh, charisma and deep love for this country are evident in all he says and does.

I enjoyed our conversation immensely. I hope you will, too.

It goes without saying, but you have had an extraordinary career. Done it all. Seen it all. And, still, you exude such optimism, which I find so refreshing.

I often say I’ve lived the American dream because I’m the son of immigrants. A lot of it is based on the fundamental optimism about what America’s all about. I used to ask my parents why they came to this country. And I never forgot my father’s answer; my mother and he really believed they could give their children a better life in this country — the American dream.

You’ve spent the majority of your career in public service. Where did that drive come from?

Well, I guess it was in high school. In those days, we had an awful lot of classes on history and government. I started getting interested in student affairs, and I ran for vice president and then president of the student body at Monterey High. I got elected and really got interested in working with others through my student government roles — in high school as well as at Santa Clara University.

When I was in law school, John Kennedy came to San Jose and I remember going to the rally there, frankly, just to see who this guy was. And he drove by, and I could see this young, very attractive guy. He reached out and we shook hands. I was inspired that there’s somebody young who’s really interested in serving the country.

And so what happened was I had to go into the Army and I became an intelligence officer. And I actually got stationed at Fort Ord in intelligence. I was coming to the end of my time, and I was really interested [in working] in Washington.

I was offered a job as a legislative assistant. My wife and I jumped in the Volkswagen when I got out of the Army. We had two kids in diapers and drove all the way back to Washington. And that was the beginning.

A leap of faith!

My parents wanted me to stay here and practice law. And I said, “I want to go back and work there for two years to see what Washington’s like, and I’ll be back.” Well … 50 years later.

We talk about people who are “in the room,” meaning people who are part of or witness to important, even historic, events that most of us aren’t privy to. Can you think of a particular incident that happened “in the room” that you haven’t talked much about?

Lots of those. People usually ask me what, of all my jobs, did I like? I say, “I liked Congress when it was working.” It was actually a lot of fun working and getting things done for your district. I was also chair of the Budget Committee and was involved in some historic budget agreements. One was in the Bush administration. We pulled together Republicans and Democrats and went to Andrews Air Force Base for about three weeks of negotiating. Our job was to come up with $500 billion in deficit reduction. It was a significant bipartisan effort. And so when Bill Clinton got elected, he called me down to Little Rock to talk to me about becoming OMB director. Then we put together the budget, similar to what we’d done in the Bush administration, with $500 billion in deficit reduction. We were able to get it passed by one vote.

And then I think it was Al Gore, who was vice president at the time. He’d been a classmate of mine in Congress. Al said, “I think the president wants you to think about becoming chief of staff.” To be frank, in those days, the White House was a little chaotic. I told Gore, “I really don’t think so. I’m in the Executive Office Building. I’ve got the budget. Everything’s going fine.”

So the president asked me to go along [on a trip to Europe]. On the plane, Air Force One, he pulled me aside and asked, “What do I need to do to get the White House better organized?” I told him some of the steps that needed to be done. The next thing I know, I’m being invited to Camp David. I walk into the president’s cabin, and in the room it’s Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Tipper Gore, and Al Gore and me.

You’re outnumbered.

I’m totally outnumbered. The president starts talking about how he would like me to become chief of staff. And I said, “Mr. President, I’m much more valuable to you as OMB director. We’ve just passed the budget. It’s part of your legacy.”

Bill Clinton looked at me and said something I’ve never forgotten: “Leon, you could be the greatest OMB director in the history of mankind, but if the White House is falling apart, nobody’s going to remember you.” I said, “All right.”

I remember going back to the White House — he wanted to make the announcement within a few days. I said to Mack McLarty [my predecessor], “Mack, could you get me an organization chart for the White House?” And he said, “Leon, I don’t have one of those.” And I thought, boy, am I in deep s—? So I had to organize the White House. My Army experience was really what I used.

NEW YORK – JULY 26: First Lady Hillary Clinton and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta at JFK Airport in New York on July 26, 1996. The President traveled to New York to discuss the crash of TWA Flight 800. The crash off the coast of New York, nine days earlier, resulted in the deaths of all 230 crew and passengers aboard. The subsequent investigation blamed the accident on mechanical failure, however, there was much speculation at first that it was the result of a terrorist attack. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly)

In 2011, as CIA director under President Obama, you oversaw the operation to take down Osama Bin Laden. Take us back to that time.

I got the call from Rahm Emanuel, who I knew from the Clinton White House. Rahm said the president’s thinking of appointing me CIA [director]. I said, “You sure you have the right Panetta?” Even though I’d been a CIA officer, I hadn’t really done that much in the intelligence area.

The president said, “I need you, because I need to restore the credibility of the CIA.” It was being hit by both political parties and not in very good shape. He said, “And the other thing is, I want you to go after Bin Laden.” I never forgot that.

I remember going back to the CIA and asking the people there, “What’s the story on Bin Laden?” At the time, they basically said, “Every trail is cold. We don’t know where Bin Laden is, to be frank, after 10 years. He could be in a cave. He could be dead. He could be in house arrest in Iran. We just don’t know.”

I sensed that everybody had been working on this, but at the same time, nobody’s working on it. So I put together a task force at the CIA. I said, “You have nothing else I want you to do but to look for Bin Laden. That’s going to be your 24/7 job.”

[My team was] looking at the couriers to Bin Laden. And we got a breakthrough on intelligence and were able to determine the names and put a face to them. We were able to locate them in a town called Peshawar in Pakistan. We were doing surveillance and followed a little white SUV from Peshawar down to this town, Abbottabad, near the capital. When that white SUV drove into this compound there, the lights went off. It was a huge compound. Three times the size of others. And on the third floor, there was this kind of mysterious family. And there was a seven-foot wall. What the hell’s a seven-foot wall doing on the third floor in a scenic area?

It was a fortress.

We did about seven or eight months of surveillance. There was this individual who would come out, middle-aged, walk in circles like a prisoner in a prison yard and then go right back inside. There were indications that it was Bin Laden. … I went to Bill McRaven, who was an admiral and head of Special Forces. I said, “This may be the most important mission we ask you to get involved with. We think this might be the location of Bin Laden. I need you to develop operations for going after that compound.”

He came up with several approaches. One was to take a B2 bomber and just blow the hell out of the place, which had a certain attraction. The problem is that if you did that — turned it to dust — it would level several villages nearby. Then we thought about taking a drone strike on that guy who’s walking in circles. But having worked with drones, I said, “It’s hit and miss. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you don’t, and you’d never know if it was Bin Laden.” We finally agreed on a commando raid. Two teams of [Navy] SEALs, two helicopters, 150 miles into Pakistan, go after whoever’s on that third floor.

We brought that to the National Security Council, and I think it’s fair to say there were a lot of members who were concerned about the risks involved. It’s understandable. The president asked me [what I thought] and I said, “I think we have to go, and I have tremendous confidence in the ability of the SEALs to do this.” The president didn’t make a decision, but the next morning he did and we launched the mission on May 1.

We followed the helicopters in. We had drones that were following the mission. I was at CIA headquarters, in charge of the operation. It was hot that day. The heat from the ground came up and stalled one of the helicopters. And thank God there was an experienced officer who set the helicopter down. The tail was on one of the walls.

And at that point, my stomach was in my mouth. But I was in touch with McRaven, who was in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, at the base where they took off. I said to Bill, “What the hell is happening?” He never missed a beat. He said, “Don’t worry. I’ve got a backup helicopter coming in. We’re going to breach through the walls. The mission’s going to go forward.” It was one of those moments where a guy who knows his stuff has all of the backup, is prepared to go with the mission and that’s what he did. And we all did. They went in.

You’re watching this as it’s happening, right?

We’re watching it through drones. Heard the gunfire. I said, “Something’s up.” Then it was 20 minutes of silence. Longest 20 minutes of my life. And at the end of that 20 minutes, Bill came back on and said, “I think we have Geronimo,” which was the code word for finding Bin Laden. We waited a few more minutes and he came back and said, “We have Geronimo.” And it was at that point that we thought, God, the mission is successful. But we were still nervous because they had to get back on the helicopters and get everything. They were picking up intelligence, getting Bin Laden’s body, putting it on the helicopters, and they still had to go 150 miles back to Afghanistan. We thought the Pakistanis might scramble their F16 fighter jets, but we found out later that they don’t like to fly at night, thank God.

They made it back to Jalalabad. We were able to officially identify that it was Bin Laden using DNA and other evidence. Then we went down to the White House, and it was a great moment. The president decided to announce it that night.

Just an amazing story … I want to turn to what is happening in the world today, specifically about the situation in Ukraine. Did you ever have any direct dealings with Putin? And if so, what was your impression of him?

I think the best way to say it is, Putin is KGB. He was trained as a spy. I was director of the CIA at the time. I understood where he was coming from because he was paranoid about the United States and what we were doing.

He was also very serious-minded. He had very clear views of Russia’s place in history. It was pretty clear he was a bully. But I never considered him stupid. I always thought he could be very deliberative in the ways he wanted to get things done. He went into Georgia, went into Crimea, went into Syria, went into Libya and obviously attacked the United States with a pretty bold cyberattack. Because he sensed weakness and he didn’t pay a price. I think he saw what happened early in the Biden administration with Afghanistan and he continued to sense weakness. And, in the end, he thought he could get away with it.

To the credit of the president [Biden] and a unified NATO, I think it was very important to draw a line on Putin and to make clear he was going to pay a price. I think the United States and our allies did the right thing. When he did decide to invade, they implemented the sanctions. Provided the weapons, reinforced NATO. I think it’s really important for the U.S. and our allies to stand very tough, provide the weapons that the Ukrainians need so that they continue to push back on the Russians.

I think this is going to be a real test. This is a pivotal moment that can ultimately decide what happens with democracies in the 21st century. I think if the Ukrainians are successful, and the U.S. and our allies are successful, and Putin is weakened, and Russia is weakened, and Ukraine is a sovereign, independent country, that will be a very important message for the rest of the world. For China, for North Korea, for Iran, but also for the rest of the world.

LIGHTNING ROUND
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken is … Bin Laden raid.
My biggest regret is … Probably not running for governor in California. … I thought about that and people asked me about it, but I just remember Dianne Feinstein announced that she was going to run and I decided not to go for it.
I’m happiest when … I’m with my wife, Sylvia, on our ranch in Carmel Valley. I’ve got a new puppy named Buddy. When we’re all together, that’s my happiest moment.
If I had a magic wand, I would … Really want Republicans and Democrats to come together.

We’re glued to the television looking at these images. We see the atrocities. Shouldn’t we be doing more?

It’s one of those moments where you really feel like you just can’t let the Russians get away with what they’re doing. But I also think, thank God for the courage and fighting spirit of the Ukrainians. I’ve often said as secretary [of defense], give me a warrior who truly believes in what he’s fighting for, because that’s a warrior who’s going to fight till the death to make sure that his country’s protected. And that’s what they’re doing.

I think we’ve got to give them more sophisticated weaponry — S-300s, S-400s, the kind of Patriot missiles that will take down missiles, take down airplanes and give them the ability themselves to establish a no-fly zone. If we can give them those additional capabilities, I think they can carry the fight to the Russians pretty successfully.

Is that what you would tell President Biden if you were advising him?

Absolutely.

Do you think there was anything that could have been done to prevent the invasion? Hindsight is always 20/20.

I often think about that. But I do think that Putin did not expect the U.S. and our allies to be as unified. And I think he really thought that because he’d been the target of sanctions before, that he could overcome sanctions. I think that he probably wasn’t as aware of the kind of weapons we were providing them, and the training. We had our military in Ukraine training people how to fight. And I think that’s paid off a great deal.

[Russia] thought once they decided to invade it would take a couple days. They’d capture Kyiv and the government would come down. And I think everybody overestimated what the Russians could do and underestimated what the Ukrainians could do. In the end, I thought it was a remarkable effort to slow down what otherwise would have been a massive invasion of another country. The one thing I’m sure of is that no matter what the hell Putin does, and no matter how many people he kills, no matter how many cities he takes — he will never win Ukraine.

He doesn’t have enough troops to maintain control. So one way or another, this is a losing game for Putin. And if Putin is weakened and Russia is weakened and a democracy is strengthened, that’s a very important message for the world.

Recent polls show Putin is still popular with the Russian people. What will it take for them to lose confidence in Putin?

I think that despite whatever polls are being shown, there are too many body bags going back to Russia. There are too many people who have demonstrated against this war in Russia that it tells me most Russians know that this is the wrong war at the wrong time. And I think Putin will pay a price for it.

How do you see this ending?

That’s obviously the question everybody’s asking themselves. It’s largely in Putin’s hands. I think if the Ukrainians can put up a strong fight in this next phase and really prevent the Russians from achieving their mission, Putin will have no alternative but to negotiate some kind of resolution. That’s the best way to resolve this issue, because Ukrainians will then be in charge of what those negotiations look like.

Turning back to Washington, what do you think about the extreme polarization of the two parties?

I’ve often said in my 50 years of public life that I’ve seen Washington at its best and I’ve seen Washington at its worst. The good news, I tell people, is that I’ve seen Washington work. In the last few years, Washington has been increasingly dysfunctional. Polarized. I never in my lifetime thought I would see a mob attack the U.S. Capitol and bring our democracy to a halt.

The whole purpose of electing people to office is for them to govern the country, not to go back there and pound their shoe on the table. It’s trying to work together to find consensus and try to resolve these issues. The greatest national security threat to the United States is a dysfunctional democracy and the inability of both parties to deal with the challenges that are facing our country.

I see it through the eyes of my son now. Jimmy’s in Congress. In my days, Jimmy saw that we worked together. We went to dinner with Republicans. We played basketball with Republicans. And he saw that it translated into working together on legislation. So he’s back there now. He’s part of this Problem Solvers Caucus: 25 Democrats, 25 Republicans, trying to work together on some of these tough issues.

I think there’s a growing sense that, ultimately, they really do have to work together. But I don’t know that it’s going to change from the top down. I think it’s going to change from the bottom up, when we elect new people who really care about governing our country. If you’re elected, you cannot put your party above your country. That’s the bottom line.

Like you say, you’ve seen the good and the bad.

I’ve spent a lot of time in red states. I’ve spent a lot of time in blue states. The bottom line is that families are concerned about the same issues. They have the same values. They care about their children. They care about their family. They care about a good education. They care about a good job. They want to be able to afford a house. They want to be able to take care of their parents. There are some fundamental values that everyone shares. What we need to do is to embrace those common values. I think that, deep down, most people want that to happen. But it’s going to take leadership.

If you’re a leader, you’ve got to take risks. That’s what the Bin Laden raid was all about. And if we have people who are willing to take those risks, ultimately, our democracy can function. It can work because of the bravery and courage of certain people that are willing to take those risks. I’m confident that deep down this country wants the right thing to happen. And that’s what keeps me optimistic.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


25 YEARS OF THE PANETTA INSTITUTE FOR PUBLIC POLICY

Located at California State University, Monterey Bay, on the site of the former U.S. Army base Fort Ord, is The Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which Leon and Sylvia Panetta founded in 1997. For the quarter-century since, the institute has served the CSU system and other schools with internship and fellowship programs in public policy, government and politics so students can experience what Leon Panetta calls “the art of governing.” The institute’s well-known Leon Panetta Lecture Series also brings together representatives from across the aisle to discuss pressing questions. “When we’re doing it live, we usually bring almost 600 students to this area to be able to listen to the speakers and then ask questions,” Panetta says. On May 2, he leads the last lecture of the 2022 season, asking speakers Kelly Ayotte, Bill Bradley and David Gergen: Who will vote and will every vote count? panettainstitute.org

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