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I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
On this bonus episode of Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Secretary Leon Panetta, a lifelong public servant in many different roles. He was a US Congressman, Chief of Staff to President Clinton, director of the CIA, and the Secretary of Defense under President Obama.
Today, on the 19th anniversary of 9/11, Secretary Panetta joined me to talk about one of those roles in particular. When he was the director of the CIA in 2011, Sec. Panetta oversaw the operation that led to the killing Osama bin Laden.
I asked him about that ultimate Burn the Boats decision -- to launch a raid into Pakistan, based on uncertain intelligence -- and about his thoughts on the current presidential administration and the state of our political landscape.
Leon Panetta: I'm often asked about a lot of the things going on in this country that really do threaten our constitution and our way of life and our system of checks and balances and our values as Americans. And what I often say is that the one thing that I am encouraged by is the fact that our men and women in uniform and our military leaders really do understand their oath to the country to preserve, defend, and protect the Constitution of the United States. And we saw it when this president tried to politicize the military and use them in Lafayette Park in order to clear that park so he could have a photo op with the Bible. And both the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of Joint Chiefs were part of that photo op. And then a few days later, they had the courage to stand up and apologize for what they did. And other military leaders, Jim Mattis and John Allen and a number of others all said that the president of the United States should not misuse the military and should understand that our military are trained to fight foreign wars. They're not trained to fight American citizens. And I really do feel in the end that it is the military that will stand up and say to the president and say to the country that their duty, their obligation is to the Constitution of our country, first and foremost. It's not to the president. It's not to the Secretary. It is to the constitution. And it gives me a sense of confidence that this country is going to be okay, despite the threats that it's now facing and the discouraging words that are often being said. The pillar of strength that's still there is the United States military, and they're standing strong and standing for what this country is all about. And thank God for that.
KH: In 2014, you wrote in your book Worthy Fights, this was after your tenure as CIA director and Secretary of Defense, and I imagine you were anticipating a calmer twilight, but you I think retrospectively wrote this: “The challenges of protecting this nation, safeguarding its economy, providing opportunity to its citizens and preserving its treasures have been mainstays of my life.” Did you ever imagine that you would have to rejoin the fray just a few years later to stand up for a constitution under assault?
LP: I have spent, I think, close to 55 years in public service and I've served under nine presidents in some capacity, going back to Lyndon Johnson. And whether I've agreed or disagreed with who was president of the United States, I was never concerned that they did not understand the values associated with that office and the importance of unifying this country and bringing us together, despite our differences, despite our various beliefs, to try to make clear that we are one in America. I think it was Jim Mattis who said recently that the Nazis in World War II, their code for beating America was divide and conquer. And America's stand was that we are one and we stand as one and we fight as one. To now have a president who disparages the values of the presidency and criticizes people in the military, and just recently was quoted as calling people who sacrifice their lives “losers and suckers”, I think not only undermines what the presidency is all about, not only undermines our values as Americans, but I think in many ways threatens the fragility of our democracy.
And it's for that reason that I think the American people, if they stand strong, if they use the military as a symbol of that strength and belief in the Constitution, first and foremost, that ultimately we can come together as the American people to make sure that we preserve the basic values that this country is all about. We've been challenged time and time again. In war, we were challenged. In 9/11, we were challenged by threats and violence here at home, but ultimately our belief in our values and our belief in our Constitution is what has protected this country from the threats we have faced. And I believe that in the end, our country will not only survive, but it'll be stronger as a result of having survived.
KH: I don't know if you intended this parallel to be quite so apt, but your description of the Nazi strategy in World War II as divide and conquer is very much the Trump campaign's political strategy going into November 3rd. It is a divide and conquer strategy, but it sounds like you place the same kind of hope in America's ability to come together that led us to victory in World War II in the American people today.
LP: Yeah, I think there's a lot of truth to that. Not to say I'm not concerned about the polarization of our country and divide within our country. It's not to say that I'm not concerned about the dysfunction in Washington. I've never seen Republicans and Democrats so divided and unable to govern our country and to have a president that doesn't know really how to work with both Republicans and Democrats to be able to govern our country. And I worry that when the president deliberately tries to further divide this country in using fear and anger and demeaning others and creating the sense that it's okay if you hate, it's okay if you go after somebody, it's okay if you even violate the law in order to achieve what you want. He keeps sending those kinds of messages.
But I also deep down am seeing that the American people understand him for who he is and understand that this country is deep down a lot stronger than he gives us credit for. And I think that strength is based on a sense of spirit and patriotism and love of country and a sense of duty to this country that this president simply does not understand. But I also think it is because of that that ultimately we will overcome this division in America. We've been divided before. I saw it in the 60s and I worried about it then. I've seen it other times in our country, but somehow we do come together, recognizing the values that hold us together, rather than divide us. And that's been the chemistry that has kept our democracy strong.
KH: Do you think the latest revelations about the president's disdain for American service members, especially those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, his insistence that amputees not be present at military parades because... And I am paraphrasing, but barely... “nobody wants to see that”. Do you think that will finally break through to some people and illuminate the character that you're speaking of and show the real Trump to those voters on the fence?
LP: Well, in my experience in public life, and particularly as Director of the CIA and the Secretary of Defense, I really felt strongly that the issues I was dealing with were so important to protecting our country, that it was important to have both a Republican and Democratic support. It was important to have conservatives' and liberals' support on what I was trying to do to protect this country. So I reached out to both sides for their help. I reached out to both sides for their support. And I really do think that in this country that the most conservative individual in this country shares something with the most liberal person in this country, which is an understanding that when it comes to protecting our country and having our young men and women in uniform be willing to put their lives on the line in order to protect this country, that that goes to the core strength of what the United States is all about. I looked into the eyes of these young men and women in uniform, whether it was on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan, and they're the same age as our boys, some of whom have served. And I looked at them and said, "Here are young people who are willing to fight and die in order to protect our country," What occurs to me is that, if that is something that is a core strength of our country, then why is it that our elected leaders can't somehow call on the same courage to be able to make the decisions that are important to solving the challenges that face our democracy? I really do think that when the President goes after those in uniform that served this country and it fought and died for this country, that there is for both Democrats and Republicans, liberals, and conservatives, a sense that he has crossed the line that nobody should follow. He is denigrating what is the core strength of our country which is that, regardless of who we are, we stand up and fight together to protect our country. For a Commander in Chief who doesn't understand that principle, I think that is a message that everybody understands and I hope takes into consideration when they vote in November.
KH: I'm going to ask you a question that every American over a certain age has an answer to, tragically, where were you on September 11th, 2001 and when did you realize that our country was under attack?
LP: Well, interestingly enough, I was on Capitol Hill. I was a chair of an Ocean's Commission, that was looking at the threats to our oceans. I was briefing a group, Members of Congress, a group who were concerned about the oceans. I had one of the members of the commission who had an office in New York City, and as we were briefing them, she leaned over and said she had just received a message from her office in New York, that one of the Trade Towers had been hit by an airplane. Of course, my first instinct was that it was a terrible accident, but then a few minutes later, she came back and said that now a second plane hit the second tower. It immediately hit me that this was no accident, that this was an attack of some kind on our country. I stood up, mentioned what would I had received to the other Members of Congress. I said, "I think you've got to leave and this country is today, under attack." They all left, and I did as well. As I was always driving away from the Capitol because I figured that the Capitol might very well be another target, I could see the far-off smoke from the Pentagon, where another plane went into the Pentagon.
Then, obviously, I was stuck in Washington like everyone else when they brought all of the airlines and grounded them. Eventually, I think it was the next day or two days, I was able to get a rental car and I drove across the country. It was a fascinating experience because, as I was driving across the country, I could see in the signs on businesses and at the hotels, they were lit up with, "God Bless the USA, God Bless Our Country”. You could just sense that encouragement coming from our people that said, we're going to beat this, we aren't going to allow these people to defeat the United States of America. And I could sense that all the way back home. And it gave me a sense that, deep down the strength of this country isn't in Washington, the strength of this country really is in the patriotism and resilience and common sense of the American people.
KH: Those values were attacked on 9/11 and I share your optimism about the resolve of the American people. But one of the things that we did in our response, in our attempt to protect and defend the nation was betray some of those values. And you were brought into the CIA to help rebuild some of that broken trust after the detainee program. I'm wondering, looking forward, how you channel that experience when you realize that at some points, the arc of American history is bent by those mid-level executives or operatives who have to make a decision in the moment about the legality or constitutionality of what they're doing. Do you have enough faith in those people to do the right thing when their political appointees are telling them to do the wrong thing?
LP: Well, that goes really to the true nature of our democracy, which is built into the individuals who have a responsibility to protect our constitution. I mean, we all stand up and swear an oath to protect our constitution, but that depends on the judgment and capability and values of that particular individual. It's tough, it's not easy. I'm not saying it's easy, but when you're in positions like the Director of the CIA, or Secretary of Defense, or a lot of the other key decisions, oftentimes you are faced with the challenge of deciding between right and wrong. And if you've got a good gut sense of what's right and you have the inner strength to know that you have to do what's right. I was taught by the Jesuits who gave me a lot of grace and a lot of that sense of what's right and wrong. And thank God for that, because oftentimes, it is tough because sometimes the wrong path might be the politically convenient path. But I think that sense of right and wrong, that sense of doing what needs to be done for the country, and having a loyalty to our constitution first, rather than to the President or anybody else who happens to be your superior. That sense of value, that sense of strength is what's important. And it's not always there. I mean, we've seen in the last few years. I mean, we've seen even people who stood strong on trying to protect our intelligence agencies have gradually been replaced. And the end result is that we now have a situation where the very purpose of intelligence, which is to tell truth to power is being undermined, because we don't have good people who are willing to stand up and do what's right. We don't have a President who wants to accept the truth from our intelligence people. So the end result is that he has undermined some of these incredible strengths that are important for our country. And more importantly, does not stand by what is right morally, by what is right legally, but will do whatever serves his own purposes. That's a message that's gone out. And I think in many ways that the ultimate check in our democracy has to rest with we the people, and that I think is what gives me some sense of confidence.
That deep down we the people, I think the average American, I don't give a damn whether you're in California, or whether you're in Kansas, or Missouri, or Alabama, or Texas, if you're somebody who's working, if you've got a family that you love, if you're trying to do the right thing every day, because you believe that's important, to raise your children in a way that gives them a sense of right and wrong. I think people understand that what is happening today is not right. And I think ultimately, it's because we the people have the ultimate power to decide who the leaders in this country are. That deep down is ultimately what will save our country.
KH: I would love to ask you about what it is like in the White House Situation Room when you are ordering young men and young women into extremely dangerous situations, and the iconic one of course is the raid on Abbottabad which the CIA built the intelligence for and which you made a top priority during your tenure. What was the climate like in that room as those modified SH-60s took off? And how did you think about the men on those birds going in to do that mission on uncertain intelligence?
LP: Well, I’ve said that I think the toughest duty I had, both as Director and as the Secretary of Defense, is deploying our young men and women in uniform, our young men and women who are intelligence officers, deploying them into a dangerous situation that could involve the loss of life. Every time I signed those orders, I thought about the lives that I was putting in danger. When we did the operation against Bin Laden, which was - talk about sacrifice, talk about making tough decisions. We had pretty good intelligence that possibly Bin Laden was located in that compound, but we did not have 100% intelligence. We thought we had pieced together a pretty good case, but in the end, to think about sending two SEAL teams, 150 miles at night into Pakistan to repel down onto this compound and possibly face a situation where we might very well be at war with the Pakistanis, not to mention Al-Qaeda, it was risky. I can remember at the National Security Council going around that table. There were a lot of people there that were concerned about the risks and didn't think it was worth it. It's understandable. I don't criticize them for that judgment because it was risky.
But I remember when the President asked me, I said to the President, "You know, Mr. President, I've had an old principle I used when I was in Congress when I faced a tough decision, which was to think about asking an ordinary citizen in my district, what would you do if you knew what I know?" In this case, if I told the average citizen we have the best information on the location on Bin Laden since Tora Bora, I think that citizen would say, ‘Yes, you've got to go.’ That's what I'm saying to you, Mr. President. I think you've got to go, and more importantly, I have tremendous confidence in our men and women uniform, SEALS, that they can do this mission as well.” The President didn't make the decision at that moment, but the next morning agreed to go to, and to his credit, probably the toughest decision, one of the toughest decisions he had to make. Then, to be there for the conduct of that mission and then watch one of those helicopters go down because it was hot that day, and one of the engines stalled, and wondering what the hell was happening. I remember asking Bill McRaven who was head of Special Forces and handling that mission from Afghanistan. I said, "What the hell's going on Bill? He said, without missing a beat, he said, "Don't worry. We've got a backup helicopter coming in. The mission is going forward. These guys are going to breach the walls. They're going to go in and they're going to complete this mission". I just said to myself," God bless him." Everybody stood back, watched that mission proceed and ultimately, yes, they accomplished that mission. And sent a message to the world, by the way, that nobody attacks our country and gets away with it. That was something that stays with me deep down, because it represents the kind of courage that has served our country for so long and will continue to serve our country in the future. Courage goes to the heart of being an American.
KH: You were brought into the leadership role at the CIA to help rebuild trust with Congress, and by extension with the American people. What do you think it is going to take in a post-Trump Washington to restore the integrity of the intelligence services, after the gutting and politicization it has experienced?
LP: Well, the most important thing is that the President of the United States has to say, "I want the truth,” because the whole purpose of the intelligence community is to tell truth to power. And if you have a President who says, "I want the truth, no matter what the hell the truth is. No matter whether the truth is going to offend me, whether it's going to undermine something that I believe to be true. And I may not want to hear it. I want to hear the truth." And if the President of the United States sends that message and then appoints people of quality to the responsible positions in government. In other words, people who are experienced, people that have a track record, people who understand the importance of doing their job and serving the country, the interest of the country first. You appoint people like that to these key positions, in intelligence and in the White House, that is the best guarantee that we can heal the damage that has been done in this administration.
KH: Do you think that focus on the truth should include holding those accountable who betrayed their oaths? It's a loaded question, of course, because you made a very deliberate decision to look forward after taking the reins of CIA in the midst of the war on terror and not impose that kind of accountability that might have gutted your service.
LP: Well, look, I think there's a simple and fair way to approach this, which is that if there are those that violated the law, then they should be prosecuted. If they violated the law of this country, I don't think that we should somehow ignore that. For those that may not have always made the right decisions as we would consider them right, but were operating in difficult circumstances, yeah, I think, probably for them, we probably should move forward. But I think it is very important for the next President of United States to make very clear that we are going to enforce the law because frankly the most frightening thing about what we're going through now is that even though we know that laws have been violated, there's somehow a sense that “so what, none of this is being enforced”. This so-called law and order administration is essentially a lawless administration that isn't willing to abide by the law and the rules themselves. So, I think the next President has to make very clear that the laws of this country are going to be enforced.
KH: Well, thank you so much Secretary Panetta for joining us, it's been a pleasure.
LP: It’s been good to talk to you. Thank you.
Thanks again to Secretary Leon Panetta for joining me on this bonus episode of Burn the Boats.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.