SpyCast 2.13.24
Ep 620 | 2.13.24

CIA Director, Defense Secretary, Gentleman with Leon Panetta


Andrew Hammond: Welcome to "SpyCast", the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. My name is Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Each week, we explore some aspect of the past, present, or future of intelligence and espionage. If you enjoy the episode, please leave us a five-star review. If you want to dig deeper into the content of the episode, you can find links to further resources, suggested readings, and full transcripts at cyberwire.com/podcast/spycast. Coming up next, on "SpyCast". >> It's very tough to stare the president of the United States in the face and say, "You know what? I think you're making a mistake, and these are the reasons why." [ Music ] This week's guest is former CIA Director Leon Panetta. He has spent decades in public service and has held other significant roles, such as secretary of defense and White House chief of staff, as well as congressman, and US Army intelligence officer. He is currently the chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at Cal State, Monterey Bay. He was an absolute pleasure to interview. In this week's episode, you will learn about what it's like to direct the Central Intelligence Agency, the role of intelligence and the bin Laden raid, what it's like to work for President Clinton and President Obama, how his golden retriever, Bravo, kept him calm in times of crisis, and much, much more. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are "SpyCast". Now, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. So thanks ever so much for joining me, Secretary Panetta, and I just wondered what your thoughts were on receiving the Webster Award. So you're here at the International Spy Museum to get the most prestigious award that we give out. How does it feel to come here and to be honored by people in the intelligence community and the Spy Museum?

Leon Panetta: Well, I'm very honored by, you know, having received this distinguished service award named after a very good friend and somebody I have tremendous respect for, Judge William Webster. And so, you know, I feel honored for several reasons. Number one, because it's the Spy Museum. And I really think the Spy Museum is an institution that dedicates itself to educating the public as to what spying and intelligence is all about. Secondly, because of Bill Webster because he is the consummate public servant, and I've spent over 50 years of my life in public service. But it's people like Bill Webster that were a model for me and for many others. And he's somebody who served with great distinction and two tough jobs at the time, and did a great job under some difficult circumstances. And lastly, because of intelligence, so I think I happen to believe that intelligence is absolutely critical to the ability of leadership to make the decisions that have to be made regarding our national security. And the ability to get good intelligence, to make sure that we know what our enemies are up to, I can't tell you how important that is to the ability to be able to defend our national security.

Andrew Hammond: I remember reading your memoir a few years ago. It's pretty incredible, the story of your family coming to America like of course so many immigrants in search of a better life. And then you end up in The House. You end up CIA director, secretary of defense. I mean, it's an incredible story, really.

Leon Panetta: Yeah, I used to ask my dad why did he come all of that distance to come to a strange land? This is in the early '30s when my mother and he came to America. And although they came from a poor area in Italy, they had the comfort of family and friends. Why would you leave all that to come to a strange land? I never forgot his answer, which was that my mother and he believed they could give their children a better life in this country. And I think that's the American dream. It's the ability to have a better life. And I've lived that dream in many ways. I've had the opportunity to be able to give back to this country, which is something my parents thought was really important. And I've had the opportunity to serve in a lot of different positions in government, from Congress to the administrative branch, to CIA to secretary of defense, to being chief of staff to the President of the United States, so I've really had a lot of great jobs. That, for me, were important in terms of not just serving this country, but I think the whole purpose of public service is to give people a better life and be able to enjoy that American dream. I mean, in the world of intelligence, the reason it's important is because it provides security for people so that they can have access to the American dream. And so I can't tell you how awestruck I've always been by the symbols of our democracy. I can -- I can remember, as a member of Congress, walking across the street at night with the Capitol all lit up and saying to myself I'm the son of immigrants, but here I am a member of Congress and voting on behalf of the American people. And sometimes when I was chief of staff to the president, I'd be alone in the Oval Office. And I'd look around and say, my God, here I am, the son of Italian immigrants, in probably the most powerful place on the face of the earth. I always felt that it was a reflection of this country's ability to say to anyone you have a chance to be the best.

Andrew Hammond: You mentioned there the role of educating the public and intelligence, and I just wonder as someone who's been a public servant who got involved in intelligence back in the 60s as an Army officer, how important is it for the public to be educated about intelligence? MI6, for example, didn't even officially exist until 1997. But last year, the director of MI6 set up a Twitter account. So we've kind of came a long way in terms of intelligency's relationship to the public. So I just wondered, in this environment we're in now, how important is it for the average person on the street to understand what actually is going on, of course, to the level that they're able to understand it?

Leon Panetta: I think it's extremely important for people to understand the importance of intelligence. And, look, I know most people's relationship to intelligence is going to a James Bond movie or watching something about, you know, a CIA agent doing some crazy thing, or, I mean, there are programs that try to deal with those that are supposedly involved in intelligence, but I have a feeling that most people take intelligence for granted. They understand that, you know, for example, in a war, the military has to be able to perform, and to defend the country, and put their lives on the line. But I don't think what they understand is that in order for the military to do the job of protecting our country, they absolutely need good intelligence. If they have good intelligence on their adversary, if they have good intelligence about where targets are located, if they have good intelligence about where the enemy is located, then that, more than anything else, gives them the opportunity to be successful on the battlefield and be successful in defending our country. I think that people not only understand that part of it, which is how important intelligence is to protecting our security, but I also don't think they think very much about what we have to go through in order to get good intelligence. That, yes, there are soldiers that have to put their lives on the line. Well, let me tell you something, there are people in the intelligence business who put their lives on the line in order to gather the important intelligence and information that is needed. I mean, I, you know, I saw that firsthand as director of the CIA. You know, we trained people, and we put spies in places that were very dangerous. And if the people that they were associated with knew that there were spies in their myths, they'd be dead. They'd be dead. So people need to understand that in order to get good intelligence, we need dedicated people who understand the importance of getting accurate information and presenting it to their superiors, to their leaders so that they're equipped with the best information possible in order to do their job. It is an incredibly important piece of how we protect people. And if that intelligence is successful, then we have a good chance of winning on the battlefield. But if we don't have that intelligence, disaster happens. We saw in 9/11, the failure to be able to get good intelligence that there were individuals who were training on airplanes, who were enemies of our country. But somehow we missed putting that information together, and 9/11 took place. And so we're at war. We're at war. So I guess that's what I want the American people to understand is that, you know, here you got a spy museum here. It's a great place to come to and enjoy. And it's a little bit like going to, you know, other museums in this town. But I want them to understand how important this is to our ability to defend our democracy. That's the message that I think the Spy Museum, frankly, helps deliver to a lot of members of the public that have absolutely no idea just exactly what intelligence and the people who go after that intelligence are all about.

Andrew Hammond: And you started off in the world of intelligence as an Army officer. Is that correct?

Leon Panetta: Right.

Andrew Hammond: Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about that experience. Were you conscripted? Did you volunteer? Did you want to do intelligence? Were you pushed into intelligence? How did you get involved in this business in the first place, Secretary?

Leon Panetta: Well, it -- there was -- there was a war going on called Vietnam at the time, and there was a draft. And so when I went to University of Santa Clara, what Santa Clara had is something that I think is really important for our defense, which is an ROTC program. ROTC program is a program of basically giving young men and women the opportunity to be officers in the military. And Santa Clara, at that time, had a four-year program for ROTC. You were mandated to take it, and I took it for the first two years. But then I decided I wanted to take it for the next two years, which gave me the opportunity to be commissioned as a United States Army officer. So I went through ROTC, and then when I graduated, I not only got my degree, I got my commission. I also got a deferment through law school, which helped because I wanted to go to law school. So I got a -- was able to get a deferment. And then after law school, I had to report for duty and was in the Army. Went to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training in the -- in the infantry and then, from there, went to what was known as Fort Holabird up in Baltimore, Maryland, at the time for intelligence school and took a long course in intelligence and became an intelligence officer. I was involved, you know, in intelligence work. I was initially assigned to go to the DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and then reported to duty out in California at Fort Ord, which happened to be near my home and was an intelligence officer there in what's called G-2. And what I did at the time, as an intelligence officer, was to basically provide briefings to these young men and women, largely men, but men and women who were being trained for the battlefields in Vietnam. So I had the opportunity to give them briefings on -- intelligence briefings as to what Vietnam was all about, what kind of enemy they had to deal with, what was going on in that war, and I did that for two years, and then was able to get my discharge. And I went from being an officer in intelligence to working as a legislative assistant to a US senator in Washington. But as an officer, it was a different time when it came to intelligence. The Army had Army intelligence. The Navy had Navy intelligence. The Air Force had Air Force Intelligence, but did they communicate? Did they work together? No. It was all siloed. And so it was very different at the time, in terms of the kind of sharing of intelligence information that we now have. But I think I realized, as an Army officer, that it was really the first time I put my arms around intelligence as being important to being a good warrior. If you're going to be able to be a warrior, you better damn well have good intelligence, and that I never forgot. I had a colonel who was head of G-2, who basically said, Leon, the reason you're here is to make sure that people know where they're going, why they're going, and how it all relates to protecting our country.

Andrew Hammond: Did that briefing involve like giving the soldiers an appreciation of the international system? Here's why we're going to Vietnam. Here's why the army is doing what it's doing. Here's US policy and so forth.

Leon Panetta: It was important to provide context, I think, you know, because a lot of these young soldiers had no idea where Vietnam was or how we got into Vietnam. And so I had to basically provide that background. And we introduced a historical aspect to why Vietnam? Why are they going to war? What kind of enemy are they going to have to deal with? And then describe the kind of particular warfare that was going on in Vietnam, which, you know, there wasn't a line on the field. There wasn't a, you know, a battle line. It was -- it was totally involved with guerrilla warfare coming at you from a lot of different directions. And trying to be able to understand an objective. What's my objective? It was much more difficult to paint that picture in Vietnam than it was in other wars that we fought. But what we really tried to do was to make them understand that they had to have a sense of why they were there, and what was that bigger picture? And I have to tell you that, even at that time, there were young soldiers who were basically saying why the hell are we going to Vietnam? What's the -- what's the reason we're involved in Vietnam? And I had to struggle sometimes to provide that answer, but that was my job. [ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: In this episode, we hear Leon Panetta describe being the son of Italian immigrants. Here's a short interlude to help you place the episode in greater historical context. Between 1880 and 1920, over 4 million Italians came to the United States. The vast majority in the south of the country, places like Cecily, Campania, and Calabria, which is where Secretary Panetta's parents were from. In so doing, they became one of the largest ethnic groups in the entire country. They were both pulled to the new country, especially by the economy, and pushed out of the old country, especially by poverty, although of course, there were other factors at play. Many millions more Italians ended up in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, and the New World, and France, Switzerland and Germany, and Italy. Fun fact, Italy was only unified in 1861, making the US its older sibling in the modern nation state category. Nevertheless, Italian culture is extremely old and measured in millennia. It is not for no reason that it has the most UNESCO world heritage sites out of any country in the entire world. [ Music ] And I would like to come to your time in Congress and some of the other positions that you have, but just like hearing you speak there, it sort of fascinated me thinking about the life of Leon Panetta and then mapping that on to the history of American intelligence. You know, you were involved from way back in the '60s up until just now you're -- we're at the Spy Museum. So that's a whole lifetime that maps onto American intelligence. You know, this is a huge question. But what are some of the major things that you've seen? Because you've seen it across time, but you've seen it from lots of different vantage points.

Leon Panetta: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Oval Office?

Leon Panetta: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: The out at Langlade [assumed spelling], the Pentagon. What are some of the major changes? I've heard you discuss previously things like cyber and, you know, the transformative effect that had, current domestic political divisions and so forth? But if you were looking at the sweep, the movie, of American intelligence through the lens of your life, like what changes do you see taking place?

Leon Panetta: Yeah, I mean, it obviously started as an intelligence officer getting a sense of, you know, the intelligence of why we were at war and trying to pass that on to those that were going to go to war. And it was -- it was much -- there was a much more narrow focus to that. When I was elected to the Congress, that's when I was exposed to really intelligence analysis and the importance of analysis because, you know, we were dealing with all kinds of crises during the Carter administration, dealing with the whole issue of what was happening in Iran, and understanding what was going on, and getting briefings from intelligence officials, as well as White House officials, as to why the hostages had been taken, and how do we, you know, go about retrieving them? And then, obviously, in the Reagan administration, President Reagan made the decision to go to Panama, to go to other areas, you know, what was behind that? Because now I'm in Congress. I have to cast a vote as to whether or not, you know, we should go to war, or at least whether or not I'm willing to fund whatever the president decided to do in terms of a war. So getting those intelligence briefings, why this was happening, why we were going, how we were going to be able to accomplish it, that was my exposure to that larger intelligence presentation. And that was true, certainly in the Bush administration, in particular, when we went to war in Kuwait. I mean, we are really talking about mobilizing the country and then going to war. And understanding that, understanding why we had to do it, understanding how the military was going to be able to accomplish this goal did not only involve intelligence briefings, but military briefings about how that war would be conducted. So, you know, in my history in the Congress, I really had the opportunity to see that bigger picture about the role of intelligence, the role that it played in leadership decisions that determined whether or not America would go to war or not. And then, obviously, going from that experience, I went to The White House and became chief of staff to the president and was directly involved in what's called the PDB, which is the President's Daily Brief on intelligence. And sitting in the room with the president and hearing intelligence analysts presenting threats to the United States and making the president aware of where those threats were coming from. So that was a very different experience. Because, I mean, that kind of went to the heart and soul of why we needed intelligence because here is the president of the United States who was elected to lead the country. And what's happening is you're presenting the president of United States with all of the threats that are out there. And it's his responsibility to deal with credible threats. And I mean, I can't tell you how many times, you know, I don't know if you ever looked at a PDB, but it can be -- I understand why there are some presidents who don't even want to read the damn thing because it can make for a depressing reading because you're learning about every threat that's out there that could potentially blow up on you.

Andrew Hammond: There can be a better way to ruin your cornflakes and coffee than getting a PDB.

Leon Panetta: That would be absolutely. I -- and then, you know, I became a CIA director, I'd get that briefing, and I get in the car. I'd open the book and start reading. And by the time I got to CIA headquarters, I was ready to tell the driver why don't you turn around and go back? Because I knew what I'd have to face.

Andrew Hammond: I would have started faking motion sickness or something like I can't read in the car.

Leon Panetta: Yeah. So I've just -- and then as secretary of defense, I'm now somebody responsible for deploying young men and women into harm's way. And I have to -- I have to make sure that I understand why I'm doing that. What's the intelligence? Tell me. What are they going to confront? How many troops do I have to send to an area of the world in order to make sure that we're defending our country? And I really understood, in that position, the life-and-death issues that you have to confront when you're in a leadership position. And without question, intelligence became much more critical to my ability to do my job.

Andrew Hammond: And out of all the presidents that you've seen, I find it quite interesting. You know, they're the ultimate user, in many ways. From what you observe, like what are some of the different or similar ways in which the presidents that you've worked with have consumed intelligence and with it going back to next and --

Leon Panetta: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Like you mentioned, the Reagan administration, Clinton, your -- and the room of Obama for the Abbottabad raid. Give me some insight, if you -- if you can on like who was the -- who used the intelligence on a particular way? Or was there a one that you thought this president, you know, nobody can be good at everything, right?

Leon Panetta: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: But maybe there was one that you thought this person really knows how to use intelligence. Like just give us a flavor of the presidents that you've worked with and how they were consumers of intelligence.

Leon Panetta: Well, I think, you know, and, I mean, I, in one way or another in my over 50 years of public life, have dealt with about nine presidents going back to Lyndon Johnson. And every one of them had kind of their own -- their own style. But the ones I work for, I mean, you kind of personally understand what kind of goes through their head and how they approach these issues, and I had the good fortune to work for two presidents, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who were very smart, had tremendous -- a tremendous ability to capture the most complex problem and understand it and wanted to know -- wanted to know. So, I mean, Bill Clinton, he would go through the PDB, and he would write notes on the PDB. He would read through every one of them. He would be briefed on it. He would ask questions. He was tremendously inquisitive in terms of getting information and knowing what to do. And I think, for Bill Clinton, you know, for a president who doesn't have a lot of experience in the Oval Office, in many ways, you, if you walk in, and you haven't been -- you haven't served in the military to suddenly have that responsibility to understand the world for what it is and what you need to know, you know, I think -- I think Bill Clinton thinks back to, you know, the moments in Somalia, and, you know, Black Hawk Down, and the mistakes that were made. And he -- I think he knew that he wanted to follow the advice with military. For somebody who didn't have that experience, made sense to do that. But I'll tell you the lesson he learned is that, from that moment on, he was going to look at the issues and make the decision, what had to be done. And so it meant that, oftentimes, you might not just accept the advice that military officers give you. You've got to do that, as president. You got to kind of look at the issues. You got to look at the intelligence. You got to look at the enemy that you're dealing with and make decisions. And I think, as a result of that experience, he made much better decisions when it came to Bosnia and how we should approach Bosnia and deal with that. And, you know, Barack Obama, again, very bright, very inquisitive, asked good questions and, to some extent, went through the same learning process. I saw it again, you know, where a president has to like -- you got to go through the process. You know, you're going to -- you see these soldiers who got four stars on their shoulders and a lot of generals, lot of admirals, it can be an intimidating experience. But the ability to kind of learn how you have to not just get their opinions, but get the opinions of the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the intelligence people, and then put all of that together. And, you know, Barack Obama was dealing with a war on terrorism and, you know, confronting a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, and, oh, by the way, a war that I was involved with, which was the war against Al-Qaeda and trying to make the right decisions, and those decisions are based on intelligence. As director of the CIA, I mean, I think it was Mike Hayden who told me, my predecessor, that, as CIA director, I was going to be a combat commander. And I said, "What are you talking about?" And he said, "You're going to be making judgments about life and death." And he described the whole process that we were involved in, in targeting Al-Qaeda leaders, going after them, getting intelligence on where they were located and then targeting them. And suddenly, I found myself in a position where I'm determining life and death. And I need to have information. I need to have intelligence where that enemy is located.

Andrew Hammond: When you were talking there about Clinton and then Obama, reminded me a little bit of President Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs and then --

Leon Panetta: Yep.

Andrew Hammond: -- the change that he encountered by the time it came to the -- from the same crisis.

Leon Panetta: He learned the same lessons, yeah.

Andrew Hammond: It seems to be déja vu.

Leon Panetta: And sharing those same lessons. And I -- you -- I see it repeated throughout history. But, you know, Kennedy made a decision based on the advice of military leaders and the CIA that, you know, you're going to -- you're going to go in to Cuba and try to overthrow Castro. And to his credit, when that mission failed, I think one of the things I will never forget is Kennedy going on the news and saying a mistake was made, and I'm responsible for that mistake. Doesn't happen very often.

Andrew Hammond: Don't hear so much anymore, do we?

Leon Panetta: Doesn't happen. But he assumed responsibility for what happened. And it's funny. I've always -- I always think back to that because I think he did the right thing, not only by taking responsibility, but I think, in the end, people really respected the fact that he said that. And as a result, when he had to face some tough decisions about missiles in Cuba, I think the public gave him a lot more support for what he tried to do.

Andrew Hammond: And a couple of things that I want to touch on which don't get discussed very often, as you mentioned, one of them chief of staff and the other one, the OMB, which is not maybe on the surface the kind of sexiest topic. But I think that that gives you a really unique and insightful look into the world of intelligence.

Leon Panetta: Yeah, yeah.

Andrew Hammond: And a lot of our listeners that are not involved in the business may not understand why. Maybe you could tell them why you can learn about intelligence, the Office of Management and Budget.

Leon Panetta: Yeah, because, you know, the Office of Management and Budget is about money. It's about budgets. And as director of OMB, my job is to make recommendations to the president about how much you're going to spend and where. And that was my, you know, really my first introduction to the black budget, in intelligence, and understanding just exactly what was part of that.

Andrew Hammond: And the black budget?

Leon Panetta: Black budget is really they call it the black budget because it isn't one that accompanies the budget, the regular budget. It's the intelligence budget, and most of the public really doesn't see it up close. But I did, as director of OMB, and, you know, got to make decisions about how much money are you going to provide the CIA for what areas? You know, you've got one is analysis. You need -- you need to have good analysis to get good intelligence. I've kind of real -- you know, recognized that throughout my career, but I really saw it when you had to -- you had to make a decision about whether or not that analysis is accurate. Because, yeah, you know, there are people out there, they're getting intelligence. They're feeding it back. But it's the analysts that has to put it together and say this is what all of this means. So funding good analysis, funding good operations, intelligence operations, are some of the toughest things, you know, that are going on, all of it classified, but all of it having a tremendous impact on whether or not we defend ourselves properly. We had to provide good technology. You have to provide a support system for intelligence. You've got to provide, I mean, I realized, as CIA director, that I had my own, you know, navy. I had my own air force to be able to deploy people, but that all has to be funded so that when the president tells me I got to do a particular mission, I have the capability as CIA director to get that job done. I don't have to go to another bureaucracy. I don't have to go to the Pentagon. I've got what I need to be able to deploy people. Takes money, and that's part of the budget. And then, lastly, all of the support systems. They, you know, the food, the housing, the communications, all of that is part of the intelligence operation. So as OMB director, I think I really learned about a lot of the different pieces that made up intelligence and, you know, what it costs to be able to get it done and justify it. Now, I should tell you that probably, in many ways, the intelligence budget is not, you know, it's not exposed to the American people. It's not really that exposed to Congress, and so it kind of can, you know, kind of go its way without getting torn up. But when something goes wrong, you better damn well believe that questions are then asked why did we do this? Why did we fund this? Why did we do this operation and not that operation? So, you know, it takes -- it takes good judgment to be able to make those decisions. And, you know, fortunately, the CIA has good professional people who are very dedicated to what this country is all about and do a great job making those judgments.

Andrew Hammond: Wow, that must have been so fascinating learning about the black budget and where all the money -- you know that old saying follow the money? See, you can confirm that there's no, you know -- I feel like the black budget is the fun of a lot of conspiracy theories and stuff.

Leon Panetta: Oh yeah.

Andrew Hammond: You can confirm that the black budget is not being used to develop an alien race of, you know --

Leon Panetta: I can't -- I can't tell you how many times people keep asking me, okay, are there alien ships located somewhere in Nevada?

Andrew Hammond: Well are there?

Leon Panetta: Not that I'm aware of.

Andrew Hammond: And I've seen the black budget. [ Music ] The Strait of Messina divides mainland Italy from Sicily. Calabria, the toe of Italy, almost touches Sicily to its southwest. At its narrowest, the Strait is under 2 miles wide. You can even sign up to do an open-water swim between them, but you will need a doctor's certificate that you're up to the job since while not the most dangerous or difficult open-water swim, like, say, swimming from Cuba to Florida or the length of the Amazon, it has been known since antiquity for its dangerous currents. The strait essentially divides the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west of Italy, from the Ionian Sea to the south of Italy. This passage is mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica, and more prosaically, Operation Husky, Allied plan for the invasion of Sicily. The town of Messina is at the far northwest of Sicily and a major port. After Patton and Montgomery's armies landed on Sicily, they would both race to be the first to Messina, thereby securing victory across the entire island of Sicily for the Allies. If you don't know who won that race, you should go and look it up. [ Music ] I think another role that we've been interested to touch on would be the chief of staff. So people out there, they'll think of the chief of staff from the movies or from what they've learned, and they think of a gatekeeper, an enforcer, an advocate for the president, you know, a kind of guard dog if a way making sure that people are not trying to do an end run around the president. You sit in on the briefings. You have to liaise with the intelligence. Yeah, help our listeners understand the way that that job intersects with intelligence.

Leon Panetta: Yeah, its -- chief of staff's role is, I mean, it's exactly that. You are chief of the staff to the president. But you are -- you really have to be a confidant of the president. That role only works if you have the trust of the president, and you, in turn, trust the president. If you have that level of trust, then I think a chief of staff can do a good job because you understand each other. You understand where they're coming from. You understand where the president wants to go. And you have to -- you really have to get the staff working to provide the information necessary for the president to decide what policies -- what policy positions is that president going to take? And, you know, sometimes it's a chaotic process. It depends a lot on the president. If the president is disciplined and has good organizational instincts, it works well. If the president is undisciplined, it can be a disaster because you can have people coming into the Oval Office. They could be walking around. Everybody goes to meetings. It's not organized. You're not focused. And so I felt, as chief of staff, that a big part of my job was to discipline that process, to make sure that people, before they walked into the Oval Office, I had them make a presentation to me, as chief of staff so that I knew they had their -- all of their facts. They had whatever charts they were going to use, and they had whatever options they were going to present to the president and that it was all well thought out. And I would ask tough questions, and I'd tell them to go back and, you know, reshape the stuff if it wasn't good.

Andrew Hammond: Making sure they had their S-H-I-T together?

Leon Panetta: Exactly. I mean, that's a big part of the job. The other part of the job is to make sure that you're on top of the president's schedule because you are working for the president. He's got to decide, I mean, time wise, president is consumed by all kinds of things, and so how do you organize his -- that day for the president of the United States? What are the events that the president has to go to? Who is the president going to see? What calls did the president have to make to Congress or meetings with the Congress? What's the message that the president wants to deliver to the American people that day? Does he want to go to a university and talk about education? Does he want to go to a factory and talk about jobs? Does he want to go to, you know, a community that has suffered a hurricane or a tornado and talk about disaster assistance? So you've got to have the ability to kind of look ahead as much as you can and decide what are the, you know, what kind of scheduling are you going to do for the president? And then, you know, lastly, and probably the toughest job of a -- of a chief of staff is to tell the president when you think he's making a mistake because nobody else does. I mean, president is surrounded by a lot of yes people who basically are trying to figure out what is it the president wants to hear and then tell him what he wants to hear. And so it's very tough to stare the president of the United States in the face and say, you know what? I think you're making a mistake, and these are the reasons why. But I think the chief of staff has to be that kind of person because he's not going to get it from anybody else. Not going to get it from anybody else. And I can remember, you know, telling President Clinton, you know, on some things he was wrong, and he'd get angry and mad because he thought he'd worked it out, but he was willing to listen. And most presidents who are good presidents are willing to listen to people that give good advice. And that's an important part of the role. So it's all of that. And it's a -- it's a 24/7 job and really is consuming, and, you know, you can't wait to kind of be able to break away from it and have a drink and try to think, you know, try to just kind of close your mind to all of the things you got to do because you are, in many ways, the alter ego of the president. And you've got to -- you've got to judge, you know, all the things that a president has to decide. I mean, President Clinton, he had this ability. He'd make a decision. You got him to focus, make a decision, and then sometimes it would churn in his head, and he would call me up and say, you know, did I make the right decision? I said, Mr. President, I've got 10 other decisions for you to make. You know, you made the decision.

Andrew Hammond: Move on.

Leon Panetta: It's done. And you got to move on because there's 10 others that have to be made, and 10 others the next day, and 10 others the next day. So it's a, I mean, it's -- what I learned as chief of staff is the tremendous responsibility that a president has if he or she wants to do the right job. It takes work. It takes the ability to listen. It takes patience, and it takes good judgment. And you see all of that in living color.

Andrew Hammond: I've listened to lots of other interviews where you talk about being the CIA director and the secretary of defense, but you don't hear so many people talk about being at the OMB or the chief of staff. But I think that they're --

Leon Panetta: It's true.

Andrew Hammond: -- kind of interesting what you can -- what you can learn. And I mean, just really briefly on this, we don't need to get too into the weeds, but intelligence during the Clinton presidency, that joke about the plane that lands in The White House grounds.

Leon Panetta: Yes.

Andrew Hammond: That's the CIA director trying to get some face time with President Clinton. And then there's this other -- the idea that Clinton was very brilliant, and he had tremendous grasp of detail, and there were lots of strings, but he was relatively undisciplined, and we'd be staying up late at night eating pizza with staffers and stuff like. We don't need to get too into all of that but --

Leon Panetta: No, I'll just tell you --

Andrew Hammond: What was it like for you? You were there.

Leon Panetta: All I have to do. I'll just tell you one story. I remember, I had just been appointed chief of staff. And I was in bed, you know, with -- at home with my wife, and the phone rings at two o'clock in the morning, and it's President Clinton. And I said, yeah, Mr. President, what can I do for you? And he said, "Are you watching Fritz Hollings on television, on C-SPAN? He's on C-SPAN?" I said, "Really?" He says, "Yeah, he's talking about the budget." And I said to him, "Mr. President, nobody in the country is watching Fritz talk about the budget at two o'clock in the morning, nobody." I said, "And you know what? You shouldn't be either. You know, you need to get rest."

Andrew Hammond: Okay, that's quite funny. So Abbottabad, this could be a whole other podcast on its -- on its own.

Leon Panetta: Really.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah, but I just wondered, is there anything that you can tell our listeners about that raid that's not common knowledge and, of course, not something that's going to get you in trouble or whatever? But is there anything about that raid that's not common knowledge or that you think is particularly misunderstood when you hear people discuss it?

Leon Panetta: Talk about intelligence and the importance of good intelligence. You know, that was particularly true with the raid to go after bin Laden. First of all, getting the right intelligence on where he was located, which is something we were -- we hadn't been able to do for 10 years. And being able to identify the couriers and then being able to find those couriers and then follow those couriers to Abbottabad, where -- when they pulled into that compound, which was a huge compound. Had 18-foot walls on one side, 12-foot walls on another side, barbed wire at the top. That's what kind of the lights went on because we were wondering what -- why this huge compound? And this mysterious family was living on the third floor. So it began an even greater intelligence effort to try to figure out whether bin Laden was there or not. So we did 24/7 surveillance using drones, constantly looking, constantly trying to see what was happening. And I'll just describe one incident that I think -- most people don't know about. But we saw this individual who would come out and walk in circles in the yard there and then go back inside, like a prisoner in a prison yard, go out, walk in circles for about 20 times and then go inside. And I remember saying to the CIA, I said, "For goodness' sakes, that could be bin Laden." You know, it's an older gentleman, we think. I need to get a facial. Give me a camera. Give me a, you know, a telescope. Give me something that can focus on facial identity of that person, and the CIA said, "You know, it's just really tough to do. We got 18-foot walls on one side, 12-foot walls on another side. We just can't get a good picture." And I remember telling him, I said, "You know, I've seen movies where the CIA can do this."

Andrew Hammond: Really? Okay.

Leon Panetta: We all laughed. We all laughed about that. But they couldn't -- they couldn't get a final, you know, picture, and so we never really knew for sure that bin Laden was there. But we had been able to piece together enough intelligence that we felt it was a good case, you know, that he might be there. And so I remember going to Bill McRaven, who was head of Special Forces and saying, you know, president thinks it's time to develop a mission. And Bill McRaven was very excited because, you know, he's a -- he's a Special Forces guy and looked at this as kind of, you know, something that he'd been dreaming about doing. And he came up with several different approaches. One was to take a B-1 bomber, and just blow the hell out of the place, which had a certain attraction, frankly. You didn't have to put people in harm's way. But the amount of firepower it would take to blow that place apart is going to impact on other villages. We thought about a drone strike on that guy who was walking in circles, but then drone strikes aren't always accurate either. And we never know if it was bin Laden. So that's when we decided on recommending a SEAL operation, two teams of SEALs going 150 miles into Pakistan at night, rappelling down and going after it. And it was, you know, it was not an easy decision. I mean, I often say leaders have to make very tough and risky decisions. They have to be willing to take a risk. And President Obama went around the room in the National Security Council, and most of the people there had a lot of questions. You know, thought it was too early, you know, not right. We need more intelligence. And I said, you know, Mr. President, I had an old formula I used when I was in Congress when I had a tough decision to pretend I was asking an average citizen. If you knew what I knew, what would you do? And I said, if I told the average citizen in my district that we had the best information on the location of bin Laden since Tora Bora, I think they'd say you have to go, and that's what I think you should do. President didn't make a decision, but the next morning made the decision to do it. We gave the go-ahead. They were all pre-located. And then something happened that is a good reminder when you're doing these kinds of operations. You better think of every potential consequence and have backup. One of the helicopters was over the compound. And because it was hot that day and one of the engines stalled, and the copter came down with its tail on the wall. And I remember saying to Bill McRaven what the hell's going on? Because it's that -- it's one of those moments where your stomach is in your mouth, and you're not quite sure. What the hell's going on, Bill? And Bill didn't miss a beat. He said, "Don't worry. We've got a backup helicopter coming in. We're going to breach through the walls. We're going to go ahead with the mission." And I said, "Well, God bless you." And he did. He did. He went ahead with the mission. We heard gunfire, which gave us a sense something was going on. And then there was 20 minutes of silence, which is probably the longest 20 minutes in my life. And at the end of that 20 minutes, McRaven came on and said, "I think we have a Geronimo," which was the code word for bin Laden. A few more minutes went by, and he said, "We have a Geronimo." And I can't tell you the sense, my God, we got him. We got him. This mission, you know, has achieved what we wanted it to achieve. But then I was thinking these guys have to get back on a helicopter. They got to go another 150 miles to get the hell out of Pakistan, and the Pakistanis could scramble F-16s. We just didn't know. But they got on the helicopters and made it back to Afghanistan, and it's there where we confirmed that it was bin Laden. And, you know, I just have always thought of that mission as an example of the great work that intelligence does, combined with the great work that our military guys, or SEALs did -- can do. And it -- and it put together a great counterterrorism effort to get bin Laden. And it -- and it was not only a symbol of the courage and the dedication, but it sent a signal to the world that nobody attacks the United States of America and gets away with it. And I think, for me, that was one of my proudest moments.

Andrew Hammond: And then you go on to become the secretary of defense after that? And that also be another entire podcast there. I think one thing that I just briefly wanted to ask on that role, how much of that role is intelligence related? Any military commander?

Leon Panetta: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: General Grant intelligence involved President Lincoln, and intelligence involved --

Leon Panetta: Absolutely, absolutely.

Andrew Hammond: Is it like 10%, 50%? Does it depend on the time period? Does it depend on the secretary? You know, for me, it's 100%.

Leon Panetta: Hundred? Wow.

Andrew Hammond: It's 100%. Because I want to know -- I want to know where I'm sending people into harm's way. And I need good intelligence, and I need, you know, I need to know that it's accurate intelligence. Otherwise, I'm not going to -- I can't recommend it to the president that we do a mission if I -- if I have some question about just exactly what's out there. And so our ability to get good intelligence was absolutely critical to our ability to conduct any mission. You know, I had kind of learned about that throughout my career. But as defense secretary, I recognized that it was absolutely essential to our ability to do a mission and to be able to make the decisions that this is what we have to do. Because if you have good intelligence, you can anticipate what the enemy is going to do, what the potential consequences are going to be. And at the same time, how do I protect my people, so I can get them in there, do what needs to be done, and get them the hell out safely, without losing anybody? All of that is intelligence. All of that is intelligence. And I really believe that we cannot protect our national security without good intelligence. This, it's absolutely essential to our ability to make the right decision and then to accomplish the mission. It's kind of incredible to me just thinking about our conversation. You start off as a young Army intelligence officer. I'm sure when you were a young Army intelligence officer, you never thought that you would be the director of the CIA one day. So the intelligence part comes full circle, and then you're in the Army. And then you end up -- I'm sure you never thought you'd be secretary of defense. That comes full circle. And then something that we spoke about before we went on air, you're now living in the farm where you grew up. And you're -- you've got vines that are about to mature, and you're about to make your own wine. And so it's almost like that end of the story came full circle as well.

Leon Panetta: Well, we also -- I should also mention is we have an Institute for Public Policy, and the mission of that institute is to try to inspire young people to lives of public service. Because I'm -- my wife and I are believers that you really have to give something back to this country. You have a duty to give something back to this country. And I really think that we all have a responsibility to develop a new generation of leaders for our democracy. That's how democracy survives is with a new generation of leaders. So I feel that, in many ways, what I'm -- what I'm doing now is the ability to try to hopefully shape the future and shape those future leaders who are going to have to make the decisions that we talked about and use the right judgment for the sake of our country.

Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much for speaking to me. I've really appreciated speaking to you and. yeah, when can our listeners -- when will they be able to buy a bottle of the Panetta pinot noir? A couple of years?

Leon Panetta: Tell them to hang on, but in a couple of years --

Andrew Hammond: Couple of years, okay.

Leon Panetta: -- we'll have some very good pinot noir from Carmel Valley.

Andrew Hammond: I can see me and Erin going on a road trip. Well, thanks so much.

Leon Panetta: Great, nice to be with you. [ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: Thank you for listening to this episode of "SpyCast". Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at spycast@spymuseum.org or on Twitter at @INTLSpyCast. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond. My podcast content partner is Erin Dietrich. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Emily Rens, Afua Anokwa, Ariel Samuel, Elliott Peltzman, Tré Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. [ Music ]