In Box

Epiphanies from Leon Panetta

The spy chief who nailed Osama bin Laden reflects on Syria, Iran, and the most dysfunctional U.S. Congress in recent memory. 

Illustration by Robert Ball
Illustration by Robert Ball

After a Zelig-like four decades in Washington — from Congress to the White House, from Langley to the Pentagon — Leon Panetta is finally back in California, on his beloved walnut farm. When he was sworn in as CIA director in 2009, few would have guessed he’d be the man to track down Osama bin Laden. A budget wonk and staunch critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terror, Panetta had virtually no experience in the shadowy world of intelligence. Once in office, however, he had no qualms about overseeing an unprecedented expansion of Barack Obama’s controversial drone war. "I wouldn’t have become CIA director if that was the case," he said with trademark candor. In a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy, Panetta touched on everything from D.C. gridlock to NSA snooping to the crisis in Syria. (Spoiler alert: He thinks America should have hit Bashar al-Assad’s regime when it said it was going to.)

President Obama is dealing with a Congress — and particularly a House of Representatives — that is probably the most difficult I’ve seen in 50 years of public service. But I also think that there’s been a breakdown in trust, and when that happens, everybody bears some responsibility. Yes, it’s the Republicans, it’s [House Speaker] John Boehner, it’s the leadership in Congress, but it’s also the president in terms of his ability to work with people and try to get things done. Rolling up his sleeves and engaging with both Republicans and Democrats is something that is a lot more difficult for him.

There is a crisis with regards to public service. Over the last 50 years, the failure of public service and public servants to be able to govern — to solve the problems that face this country — has sent out a message to a lot of young people that this is not a career that is very attractive. I think we have to be concerned about that because the bright young people that could help us deal with the challenges that we face — a lot of that talent is going elsewhere.

I think we should engage with Iran. This guy [President Hassan Rouhani] appears willing to engage. So we should try to pursue discussions to see whether or not we can limit what they’re trying to do in terms of nuclear capability. But I also think we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s going to be easy, mainly because some of the things we want them to do — like not enriching nuclear fuel — are going to be difficult lines for them to cross.

I would have preferred an attack on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. We’re now in the negotiation, and I think we’ve got to play that out and see whether or not they really do implement what they say they’re going to do. I’m skeptical. My suspicion is that Assad will try to protect some of his chemical weapons and that it will be very difficult for us to figure out where they all are. So yeah, we got the U.N. involved; we got teams there. Let’s try to see where that takes us.

Most of what has been developed over the last 10 years in terms of intelligence capability has not been done in backrooms. It’s been done by Congress, which has basically endorsed these systems, whether it’s the NSA or the things the CIA does. Now, should we have greater transparency? Should we try to make sure that abuses don’t happen? Yeah, and I think we should take some additional steps. But should we get rid of the ability to gain that kind of intelligence? Absolutely not. Not unless we are willing to risk another 9/11 attack.

We’re talking about a war here, my friend. It’s a war against people who attacked this country. And it’s a war against people who would attack this country again if they were given the chance. Now, you can go to war with F-16s and blow the hell out of them and everybody else, you can drop bombs on them, or you can use weapons that are a hell of a lot more precise and do this in a way that avoids a lot of collateral damage. I don’t have a problem going after people that want to attack this country.

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