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The Moral Torment of Leon Panetta: Former CIA Head Leaves Legacy of Deaths by Drone

The current Secretary of Defense returned to government in 2009 amid hopes he could cleanse the CIA's failings, but after four years it is Leon Panetta who departs morally compromised.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks in Landstuhl, Germany on February 3.


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a practicing Catholic, sought a blessing on Wednesday from Pope Benedict XVI. Afterward Panetta reported that the Pope said, “Thank you for helping to keep the world safe” to which Panetta replied, “Pray for me.”

In seeking those prayers, Panetta knows better than the Pope what moral compromises have surrounded him during his four years inside the Obama administration, as CIA director overseeing the covert war against al-Qaeda and as Defense Secretary deploying the largest military on earth.

For me and others who initially had high hopes for Panetta, his performance in both jobs has been a bitter disappointment. Before accepting the CIA post, Panetta had criticized the moral and constitutional violations in George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” especially the use of torture.

Taking note of Panetta’s outspoken comments, I hailed Panetta’s selection on Jan. 8, 2009,  writing: “At long last. Change we can believe in. In choosing Leon Panetta to take charge of the CIA, President-elect Barack Obama has shown he is determined to put an abrupt end to the lawlessness and deceit with which the administration of George W. Bush has corrupted intelligence operations and analysis. …

“Character counts. And so does integrity. With those qualities, and the backing of a new President, Panetta is equipped to lead the CIA out of the wilderness into which it was taken by sycophantic directors with very flexible attitudes toward truth, honesty and the law — directors who deemed it their duty to do the President’s bidding — legal or illegal; honest or dishonest.

“In a city in which lapel-flags have been seen as adequate substitutes for the Constitution, Panetta will bring a rigid adherence to the rule of law. For Panetta this is no battlefield conversion. On torture, for example, this is what  he wrote a year ago:

“‘We cannot simply suspend [American ideals of human rights] in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. 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. We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.’”

While it may be true that Panetta did end the CIA’s torture of detainees, he didn’t exactly live up to his broader commitment to observe higher standards of human rights. At the CIA, Panetta presided over an expansion of a lethal drone program that targeted al-Qaeda operatives (and whoever happened to be near them at the time) with sudden, violent death.

Even some neocons from the Bush administration – their own hands stained with blood from Bush’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq and their consciences untouched by their rationalizations for waterboarding and other forms of torture – chided the Obama administration for replacing “enhanced interrogation techniques” with expanded drone strikes.

Panetta’s Defense

Of course, we may not know for many years exactly what Panetta’s private counsel to Obama was in connection with the drones and other counterterrorism strategies. He may have been in the classic predicament of a person who has accepted a position of extraordinary power and then faced the need to compromise on moral principles for what he might justify as the greater good.

None of us who have been in or close to such situations take those choices lightly. As easy as it is to be cynical, I have known many dedicated public servants who have tried to steer policies toward less destructive ends, something they only could do by working inside the government. Others have struggled over balancing the choice of resigning in protest against staying and continuing to fight the good fight.

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