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Global Players

Global Players

May 2011

Leon Panetta, Director, Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary Designate, Department of Defense

Leon Panetta

“We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.”

— Leon Panetta.

Success, it is said, has many fathers. More so when the deed will remain fresh in memory even decades later, like the demise of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most dreaded terrorist. While several U.S. government agencies and officials can rightfully claim credit for this signal success, the accolades today remain with the Central Intelligence Agency and its director, Leon Panetta. Facing strong criticism over intelligence failures over the last decade, starting with the 9/11 tragedy, the C.I.A has experienced a rebirth. The untiring search over several years that identified Osama’s hideout and the meticulous planning that ensured the mission’s success underscored the exceptional degree of professionalism and commitment the agency is known for. And for Panetta, it is rightful vindication for his hard work to protect the agency’s morale amid the criticism and negative media exposure.

When Panetta was appointed as the C.I.A director, not many expected him to succeed in what is considered one of the most testing jobs in government. It was reported that even Panetta was incredulous when he heard about President Obama’s decision to nominate him. He was a rank outsider with very little experience in intelligence or national security, and the president was asking him to take charge of an agency that is often the first line of defense against the sinister designs of global terrorist networks and other enemies. Against odds, Panetta set out to turn the outsider tag to his advantage. Devoid of any past baggage and the pressure of high expectations, he was free to chart a new course and reinstate the agency’s bruised confidence. Under his leadership, the agency stepped up the drone attacks that have been hugely successful in containing Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and its border with Pakistan. In doing so, he achieved what he thought his job was all about, “dealing with threats that are out there, and trying to really bring the C.I.A. into a new chapter”.

Leon Panetta has been a well known figure in Washington for the last few decades, having represented California’s 16th district in the U.S. Congress for 16 years since 1977. Son of Italian immigrants who ran a restaurant in Monterey, California, Leon Panetta entered political life as a Republican. After serving as an assistant to the Republican Senator from California, he later became Director of Civil Rights in the Nixon administration. He resigned that job over differences about policy implementation and returned to California to practice law. Panetta switched to the Democratic Party in the early seventies and won the Congressional seat by defeating a Republican incumbent.

As a Congressman, Panetta’s attention was concentrated mostly on domestic policy issues. His work as the chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee was especially noteworthy, and encouraged, President Clinton appointed Panetta as the Budget Director in 1993. A year later, he was elevated to the position of Chief of Staff at the White House, where he served the next three years. It was during this period that Panetta was first involved in matters related to national security and intelligence, when he participated in high level meetings with the president. The broader perspective and insights gleaned from those meetings most likely contributed to his later success at the C.I.A.

Leon has great judgment, a great compass. He’s a great manager, and he’s trusted by both parties.

— Rahm Emanuel, former White House Chief of Staff.

After leaving the Clinton White House, Panetta moved back to California and mostly devoted his time for pursuits outside politics. Along with his wife Sylvia Marie Varni, he established the Panetta Institute at the California State University to encourage youngsters to take up public life. He taught at Santa Clara University and also spent time on his pet cause, protecting the world’s oceans. Panetta was the consummate political figure quietly fading away into the sunset, until the call from President Obama propelled him back to a high profile position.

Now that he has achieved almost legendary status, Washington will not let go of Panetta so easily. That is the price of success. President Obama has nominated him to an even more difficult position, to be his next Secretary of Defense. His bipartisan acceptance is widely expected to ensure easy Senate approval as one of the oldest ever to reach that position, but his task has been cut out. To begin with, he has to fill the large shoes being left behind by Robert Gates, a popular defense secretary first appointed by President Bush and trusted enough to be retained by President Obama. Then, Panetta has to guide the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, besides the new third front in Libya. Simultaneously, he also has to find ways to reduce troop levels in both Afghanistan and Iraq, as promised by the Obama administration.

If these tasks are not daunting enough, there is also the matter of trimming the defense budget. Often described as a third rail, dangerous if touched, there is very little political consensus on restructuring defense spending. At the same time, soaring fiscal deficits do not leave the government with any other option either. Even if he fulfills only some of the challenges that await him, Leon Panetta will no doubt be remembered as one of the most accomplished officials in recent decades. The likes of which are rare even in Washington and the one who made the world just a little bit safer.





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