An Interview with Leon Panetta, Former Director of the CIA
Leon Panetta is one of the most distinguished public servants of our time. He served as Director of the CIA from 2009 to 2011 where he led the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden and shined a light on the interrogation techniques used during the Bush era. In 2011 he was appointed Secretary of Defense where he officially repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, allowed women to serve in all combat positions, and laid the groundwork for the Iran nuclear deal. Earlier in his career he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977-1993 and was Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton from 1994-1997. We reached him in Monterey, California, where he runs the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.
The Politic: What was a day in the life as Director of the CIA?
Secretary Leon Panetta: Well [laughs] it varied a lot from day to day. But a typical day would involve going in, sometime around 6:30/7 o’clock and begin with an intelligence briefing, what’s called the PDB, which is presented to the president. I get the same briefing as the president, early in the morning. Then have a staff meeting with the key people at the CIA, it’s usually a broad staff meeting that involves looking at various issues that we are dealing with, also various issues on the Hill that we may be dealing with as well, and any other items that are raised by the people that are in the top staff there. Then usually begin a series of meetings on various items, could be operations, and it could be items related to personnel or our deployment and discuss those issues. Then, usually after breaking for lunch, we’ll have additional meetings. I used to visit different sections of the CIA so I would go there and get a briefing on what they were doing and listen to the members there. Then I would usually have to go to the White House for a national security meeting of some kind that I participated in because they usually involved intelligence briefings at the top of those meetings that I gave. Those could sometimes go two hours or more, depending on the topic that we were covering. Then late in the day I would return back to the office, and work on correspondence and various reports that I had to review. Usually I would get home sometime around 8:30pm or 9pm.
TP: Sounds busy.
LP: It was.
TP: Do you remember the most difficult day on the job, either as Secretary of Defense or Director of the CIA?
LP: Well, you know, the most challenging day that I will never forget is the day we headed up the operation to go after Bin Laden and ran the operations out of the CIA because it was a covert operation. As such, I as Director of the CIA was responsible for that operation. I will never forget, it was a Sunday and I went to early Mass, I’m Catholic, I went to Mass first. Then I went down to the CIA, we set up an operations center in what was a conference room, there on the seventh floor at Langley. In addition, I had representatives from Special Forces that were in the room with me, and we set up communications with the head of Special Forces, who was out in Afghanistan, Admiral Bill McRaven. We were in contact with him and with his help we were able to follow the operation. As it proceeded, two helicopters with SEALs on board, this was at nighttime in Afghanistan, going about 150 miles into Pakistan from the base in Afghanistan and trying to avoid any detection by the Pakistanis and then watching the helicopters arrive at the compound. At that point, they were to deploy the members of the SEAL team down through ropes to go into the compound. Unfortunately one of the helicopters stalled because of the heat that had taken place that day, fortunately it was a great warrant officer who was the pilot. He was able to set that helicopter down and to the credit of the Special Forces they continued the mission. They called in a backup helicopter, breached the walls, went in, we did the mission, and were able to get out of there. It was obviously a nerve-wracking operation but at the end of the day, it was successful, and I think it was probably my proudest moment as CIA director.
LP: Thank you.
TP: So now moving into current events, I think it’s a fair understatement to say a lot is going on in the world right now–
LP: I’ll say.
TP: So for news-savvy college students, what news outlets do you read and why?
LP: I read a variety of news channels. I get the New York Times at home, I usually go online to read the Washington Post, and I read the Wall Street Journal. I usually try to pick up on CNN and listen to the evening news hours and their summary of the news. I also have contacts in Washington and depending on the issue, I call them and get their sense of what’s taking place on issues, just to get somebody that is close to Washington, to get their viewpoint. So, I try to get a various set of news reports just because I have always felt, throughout my political career, that by reading a combination of credible journals, it’s likely to give you a better sense of where the truth is.
TP: What does it mean for the United States that another country could have direct influence in American politics?
LP: I think it is the equivalent of an attack on our country to have an adversary like Russia try to hack our election systems and influence our election. That has never happened in our history that an adversary would use a cyber attack to basically try to undermine the credibility of our election system. I think it raises a specter of the kind of threat that we are going to continue to face in the future if we don’t understand what they did and how to prevent it.
TP: If this a new type of warfare, how do you think we should combat it?
LP: Well you know we are living in a world where the battlefield of the future is going to be cyber and we have seen how cyber attacks can be used to obviously exploit information, to service denial attacks to financial institutions and other corporate entities. Most of all we have now seen sophisticated viruses that can literally destroy computers. We learned of what was called Shamoon virus that Iran had developed which they deployed against Aramco Oil and literally destroyed 30,000 computers at Aramco Oil. If you use that same kind of virus, or certainly one designed in the same way, it could be used quite literally to cripple our electric grid system, or transportation systems, our financial systems, our government system, and I think it could literally cripple our country. So for that reason I think it’s really important for the United States to stay on the cutting edge of new technology. We need to invest in cyber technology, we need to be able to recruit young people who are trained in the cyber area, and we need to develop both defensive and offensive approaches to the use of cyber.
TP: Do you think that the Trump administration is taking the right steps right now? How should they react?
LP: I’m concerned that the president and those around the president have been very defensive about dealing with Russia and Putin and what they tried to do to our country, much less the concern about Putin and Russia that they have been much more aggressive in going after the Crimea and going after the Ukraine, going after Syria, not to mention what they did in trying to combat the United States. They are an adversary, they are a threat, and I don’t always get the sense that this administration views Russia as that kind of threat. We don’t know the reasons for that but obviously investigations are now going on both with the FBI and with Congress to try and determine whether or not there was any collusion between the Trump administration and the Russians.
TP: Do you think that if a few years ago we had been tougher on Putin with Crimea or with Syria we could have prevented anything that’s happening now?
LP: I believe we should have been tougher. I think that Putin is a bully and like bullies, if they sense weakness they will take advantage of it. I think Putin did expect that the United States would take a hard stand against him for the things he was doing, and we didn’t. In Crimea or the Ukraine we did not provide arms for the Ukrainians, we did not check him when he went into Syria. So I think the message is if you’re going to deal with someone like Putin, you have to deal with him with strength, you can’t deal with him from weakness.
TP: What evidence would you need to officially claim that Russia definitively played a role in the last election?
LP: I don’t think there’s much question that Russia deliberately tried to influence the election in the United States. You have 18 intelligence agencies’ unanimous agreement that Russia attempted to influence our last election and that it was apparent that they were looking against Hillary Clinton and trying to support Donald Trump in the election. I think we do need to continue to look at the evidence to determine why the intelligence agencies agree on what the Russians tried to do to our country, it’s important for the American people to see what methods were used to try and conduct that kind of cyber attack on the United States, and by virtue of doing that, be able to determine what steps we need to take in order to prevent that from happening. As the FBI Director himself said, they were successful at the use of this kind of cyber attack in trying to influence the U.S. election. They will try to do it again, whether in the next election, or the election after that unless we take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen.
TP: Finally, do you have any advice for college students in terms of careers or resisting the Trump administration?
LP: I feel very strongly about the importance of young people to get involved in our democracy. We have an institute for public policy, the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and our mission is to try to inspire young people to get involved in lives of public service. The reason for that is I think the health of our democracy depends on those that do get involved, who are concerned about the direction of our country, who are concerned about important issues affecting our future and are willing to engage in the political process, to try to influence the direction of our country. When I was in law school, I was attracted to public service because I thought it was a higher calling, I thought it was important for people to do that. There was a young president who said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I think it’s important for young people to understand that if they do get involved, if they do participate in our democracy, that they can make a difference.