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Santa Clara Magazine

Intelligence central

Leon Panetta '60, J.D. '63 to head the Central Intelligence Agency

By Scott Brown '93

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
When it was suggested to Santa Clara trustee Leon Panetta late last year that he would have made a great chief of staff to President-elect Barack Obama, Panetta had an interesting response. He smiled and said, “No, we’re talking about something a little more challenging.”


That exchange—shared by Kirk Hanson, the executive director of SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics—was followed soon enough by news that stunned folks from the banks of the Potomac to the shores of Monterey: Panetta was Obama’s choice to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Several lawmakers expressed initial skepticism over the choice of Panetta, wondering if he had the intelligence expertise required for the job. While he served in military intelligence during his stint in the army in the 1960s, he is not a CIA insider. Yet Panetta—at 70, the oldest director in CIA history—would take on the massive task of restoring credibility to an agency that has suffered since Sept. 11, 2001, from severe missteps, leadership changes, and morale problems.

Obama defended his decision by saying he’d chosen Panetta for his management expertise, as well as the foreign policy and budget experience he gained under President Bill Clinton as his budget director and chief of staff. Obama also cited Panetta’s famously bipartisan approach, which he felt would lend credibility to the decisions ahead.

It quickly became clear that some of the eyebrows raised over Panetta’s selection had to do with senators being left out of the loop on the decision. That served as a reminder to the incoming president that former colleagues in the Senate have egos and turf that must be respected.

In his opening statement for Senate confirmation hearings on Feb. 5–6, Panetta pledged "not only to follow the law, but to go a step further and endeavor, as best as I am able, to rebuild the trust between Congress and CIA."

Panetta told the Senate committee that he has asked former CIA chiefs—notably former President George H.W. Bush—how to compensate for his lack of experience as a producer of intelligence.

"They all told me to listen carefully to the professionals at the agency, but also to stay closely engaged with Congress," Panetta said. "I am a creature of Congress. I know Washington. I know how it works. I think I also know why it fails to work."

“A sound thinker”

The son of Italian immigrants, Panetta was born and raised in Monterey, where he worked on his family’s farm. He graduated from Santa Clara magna cum laude and went on to represent the Central Coast during eight terms in the House of Representatives from 1977 through 1993. During his final four years in Congress, he was chairman of the House Committee on the Budget. He became chief budget advisor to President Clinton in 1993, and took over as Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 through 1997.

After returning to his home in Carmel Valley, Panetta and his wife started the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy on the campus of California State University, Monterey Bay. More recently, Panetta was part of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel that examined the war and made recommendations on U.S. policy. (See the Winter 2007 SCM for an interview with Panetta on Iraq.)

In 1988 Panetta joined Santa Clara’s Board of Trustees. Every fall since 1997, he has taught an upper-division political science course on “Studies in Public Policy,” which looks at politics from an insider’s perspective.

As for Panetta’s perspective on the CIA, he said as his confirmation hearing: "We can protect this country, we can get the information we need, we can provide for the security of the American people and we can abide by the law. I'm absolutely convinced that we can do that."

He allowed for the continuance of rendition—the practice where prisoners are sent to other countries—but only where the U.S. has received guarantees that prisoners won't be tortured.

Waterboarding, he said, is torture. And it would not be used. Panetta offered a clear rationale for that stance in a 2008 column in the Monterey County Herald: “Torture is illegal, immoral, dangerous, and counterproductive."

Principles of conduct

Panetta’s selection followed closely on the heels of Santa Clara alumna Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano ’79 being tapped by Obama to become secretary of Homeland Security. Why turn to Panetta and Napolitano at this time? The San Jose Mercury News offered its take in an editorial on Jan. 8: "The CIA has been tainted by the use of torture and extraordinary rendition, the hear-no-evil practice of shipping terror suspects to other nations for interrogation. Panetta’s values will help him set clear principles of conduct and sort through ethical dilemmas in the murky world of spying. As to Homeland Security—we suspect Jesuit compassion would have led to a better response to Hurricane Katrina and fewer of those misdirected raids by immigration authorities that have terrified the immigrant community.”

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Talking Iraq: Panetta on campus, spring '07
Photo: Charles Barry
The Mercury News even suggested a new motto for SCU: Salus vestra in manibus nostris. ‘Your safety is in our hands.’”


Former SCU President Paul Locatelli, S.J. '60 called Panetta “an inspired choice” and wrote in an e-mail from Rome, “Working with and watching him in many public service roles ever since our days as Santa Clara students, I can attest that he will bring both integrity and credibility to the working of CIA. He has a remarkable knack of ensuring transparency and confidentiality in his work.” With Panetta and Napolitano, he wrote, “I am confident and proud that the leadership for security of the people of the United States rests in the hands of two exceptional bright and ethical people.”

Former Oakland A’s owner Steve Schott ’60, another classmate of Panetta’s, said, “People understand that Leon is sound as a thinker and a man.” That, he hoped, “will inspire the organization to go the distance it needs to go.”

A.C. "Mike" Markkula, chair of SCU's Board of Trustees, sees Panetta's selection as solid and pragmatic. "Leon, more than any other politician I know, can actually get things done in Washington," he said.

Panetta now has that chance. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 12 and sworn in on Feb. 19.