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Interview: Secretary Leon Panetta

U.S. Secretary of Defense 2011-2013

A Monterey native and Santa Clara University School of Law graduate, Secretary Leon Panetta began his long and distinguished public service career in 1964 as a U.S. Army intelligence officer, receiving the Army Commendation Medal. Upon discharge, he went to work in Washington as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senate minority whip Tom Kuchel of California. In 1969, he was appointed director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, where he was responsible for ensuring equal opportunity in public education, and later he served as executive assistant to the mayor of New York City. He then returned to Monterey, where he practiced law until his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976.

Serving his Central Coast district in Congress for 16 years, Panetta became a respected leader on agriculture, federal budget, ocean, and health care issues, and from 1989 to 1993 he chaired the House Budget Committee. He won passage of the Hunger Prevention Act of 1988, Medicare and Medicaid coverage of hospice care for the terminally ill, and numerous measures to protect the California coast, including creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta walks through the hallways of the Pentagon with Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha prior to a ceremony at the Pentagon, Feb. 12, 2013. Romesha was presented the Medal of Honor at the White House the previous day by President Barack Obama. DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta walks through the hallways of the Pentagon with Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha prior to a ceremony at the Pentagon, Feb. 12, 2013. Romesha was presented the Medal of Honor at the White House the previous day by President Barack Obama. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

In 1993, Panetta left Congress to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget for the incoming Clinton administration. There, he was instrumental in developing the policies that led to a balanced federal budget and eventual budget surpluses. In 1994, he accepted appointment as the president’s chief of staff, and is credited with bringing order and focus to White House operations and policy making.

Upon leaving the Clinton administration in 1997, Panetta joined with his wife, Sylvia, to establish and co-direct The Panetta Institute for Public Policy, based at California State University, Monterey Bay. Reflecting the secretary’s ideals and personal example, the nonpartisan, not-for-profit study center seeks to attract thoughtful men and women to lives of public service and prepare them for the policy challenges of the future.

Panetta returned to public service at the start of the Barack Obama administration as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he supervised the operation to find and bring international terrorist Osama bin Laden to justice. Then, as secretary of defense, he led efforts to develop a new defense strategy, conduct critical counter terrorism operations, strengthen U.S. alliances, and open military service opportunities to Americans regardless of gender or sexual orientation. He chronicled his life in public service in his best-selling memoir Worthy Fights, which was published by Penguin Press in 2014.

Panetta is the recipient of hundreds of awards and honors. Recent examples include California Forward’s Forward Thinker Award; the California Teachers Association’s Friends of Education Award; the Judicial Council of California’s Stanley Mosk Defender of Justice Award; The Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Award; the Sons of Italy Foundation’s National Education & Leadership Award; the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for “Excellence in Policy”; the Intelligence and National Security Alliance’s William Oliver Baker Award; the Italian Community Services’ Distinguished Service Award; The OSS Society’s William J. Donovan Award; and the National Defense Industrial Association’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Award.

 

The Pentagon: 75 Years: What was your most striking impression of the Pentagon? We know it’s a pretty iconic building for Americans, but what was your impression working inside of it?
Secretary Leon Panetta: Well, in 50 years of public life, it’s the biggest damn office building I ever worked in. As we all know, it is the biggest building of its design in the whole world. To walk into that building and just experience the enormity of all of those hallways and all of those offices, it kind of takes your breath away.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta poses for a photo with a wounded warrior from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center during a Washington Nationals baseball game in Washington, D.C., July 18, 2012. DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta poses for a photo with a wounded warrior from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center during a Washington Nationals baseball game in Washington, D.C., July 18, 2012. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

When foreign dignitaries would come to visit, what was your sense of how it affected them? What seemed to be their impression of the building?
Well, the building is recognized around the world, and it is very much a symbol of American military power. So when foreign dignitaries come there, in many ways they are kind of awed by being there because of the power that that building represents. And it’s the power of America. I know when we used to meet there, and particularly when we had ceremonies out there in the parade field for foreign dignitaries – I did it for President Xi, I did it for a number of presidents of countries, I know they do things at the White House and then they come there and we do a ceremony there – I can say that every one of the foreign dignitaries where we did that was just very appreciative of having the opportunity to be honored at the Pentagon. I think they really treated that as a very special honor.

 

Were there any particular places in the building from which you drew inspiration or assurance? Were there particular portraits or areas or rooms that affected you more than others?
Well, a couple. In my office I had the portraits of Gen. [George S.] Marshall and Gen. [Dwight D.] Eisenhower behind my desk. And I always felt inspired by the presence of two very distinguished generals in the history of our country who where there, and who were there with me as well. I also think that there is a special place now at the Pentagon that honors a place where a plane went into the Pentagon on 9/11. A chapel was built in the area that was destroyed by that plane. The chapel is a special place where we obviously have nondenominational services of all kinds there. I always found it to be a very comforting place to be able to go and to pray. There is also very near that chapel a spot of the wall of the Pentagon and it’s a burnt spot that’s still there. I remember President [George W.] Bush coming to the Pentagon and joining me in laying flowers at that spot to remember what happened on 9/11. I think that memory will be with me for a long time.

 

Was there anything in your experience about the building that made you think, “They don’t build them like that anymore”?
Well, yeah, all you have to do is take the stairway from the main entrance and walk in and walk up what is, I think, a marble stairway – it’s slippery as hell, whatever the hell it is – but it’s a very distinguished stairway that leads up to the secretary’s office. Then if you walk into the secretary’s office, it’s probably – I’ve served in a number of different positions in government, but it’s the biggest office I’ve ever been in. They just simply don’t make them that way anymore. For people who walk into the secretary’s office for the first time, the first thing they comment on is that they’ve never seen an executive office quite as large and as distinguished as the office there. And it has the added treat of overlooking the Washington Monument and the Potomac. That makes it a special view from that office.

In his office at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta receives an update from Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby, Jr., commander, Northern Command about the Colorado wildfires threatening Colorado Springs and the U.S. Air Force Academy, June 28, 2012. DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

In his office at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta receives an update from Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby, Jr., commander, Northern Command about the Colorado wildfires threatening Colorado Springs and the U.S. Air Force Academy, June 28, 2012. DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

 

Most people are always going to be looking at that building from the outside. And they know aspects of it such as the size of it, they know how important it is, and that sort of thing. But is there anything that the general public might not be aware of, something interesting or inspirational about the Pentagon that most people don’t know?
Well, you look at the Pentagon and you see a lot of concrete, and a lot of windows, and as I said it gives you the impression of being all offices and hallways. I think what a lot of people don’t know is that in the middle of that Pentagon there is an open area that is a beautiful kind of garden, where a lot of employees go for their lunches. And in addition, when there are ceremonies, we oftentimes used to have the ceremonies in the middle of that area. It gave you a feeling that despite all the concrete, there is a touch of nature that is still there.

 

Well, shifting gears a little bit, I wanted to ask you, having served as both secretary of defense and director of central intelligence, do you think that’s an indication of how roles and missions of these two entities have sort of overlapped and blurred the nature of the threats the nation faces? It used to seem like there was a harder dividing line there.
Yeah, as I said, having served for 50 years in Washington, I think a lot of these roles used to be stovepiped, and everybody kind of did their own thing. If you were at defense, that’s what you did. If you were at intelligence, that’s what you did. Since 9/11, I don’t think there’s any question that these roles have now come together in a real partnership aimed at fighting terrorism. And I saw it from both ends. I mean, as director of the CIA, there was no way I could have accomplished the bin Laden operation without the help of Special Forces being able to come in and use our intelligence, and more importantly then conduct a mission. They caught bin Laden. That kind of partnership I saw played over time and time again between our people out in the war zones who really did spend a lot of time working together with their counterparts – you know, CIA and military working together to go after a common enemy. And it is at the heart and soul of the effectiveness of our counterterrorism operations that we built that partnership.

 

What were the things that most worried you or that kept you up at night so to speak when you served as secretary of defense?
Well, one of the biggest responsibilities you have as secretary of defense is the responsibility to deploy our young men and women in uniform into harm’s way. The toughest job I had as secretary was having to take the time, usually late at night, to write notes to the families of those who lost loved ones. Every time I did that, I reminded myself of the brave men and women who were out there in the war zones, who were putting their lives on the line to help defend America. I always at night had to worry about the safety of those that were willing to go out into the war zone and fight to protect America. Our fundamental mission is the mission of defending America and keeping it safe, and knowing that there were people out there in harm’s way that are trying to fulfill that mission is something I always thought about.

President of the United States Barack Obama walks with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to a briefing at the Pentagon on Jan. 5, 2012. Obama and Panetta delivered remarks on the Defense Strategic Guidance for the Defense Department going forward. They were joined by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the members of the Joint Chiefs and service secretaries. DOD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

President of the United States Barack Obama walks with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to a briefing at the Pentagon on Jan. 5, 2012. Obama and Panetta delivered remarks on the Defense Strategic Guidance for the Defense Department going forward. They were joined by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the members of the Joint Chiefs and service secretaries. DOD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Can you tell me a little bit about the mission today of the Panetta Institute and what some of your important initiatives are?
Our whole mission is to try to inspire young people to lives of public service. I really do believe, based on my own experience in the Army and then ultimately as CIA director and secretary of defense, that it’s extremely important for all young people to understand the importance of duty to nation and giving back to our country. And there’s no question that obviously our military does that, and does it because they really do believe in the mission of protecting our country. I think what we’re trying to do at the Panetta Institute is to try to get all young people to understand that they have a duty to give back to our country in some capacity. So that’s what we’re trying to do, is to see if we can’t help inspire these young people to understand that as citizens in this country, they owe it to America to serve in some capacity.

 

What have I failed to ask you that I should have asked you?
Well, I think you touched on most of the things. I think the important thing is … there are a hell of a lot of buildings in Washington. And even in the military, you think about all of the huge weapon systems that we have, from carriers to bombers to tanks, et cetera, et cetera, all of that just isn’t worth a hell of a lot without the people that are there and willing to dedicate their lives to protecting America. I just hope that as people think about the Pentagon and its history that they remember that the real strength of our country lies in the people that work in those offices.