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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.

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Some Panetta defenders say that he saw his role as ratcheting down the levels of violence from the indiscriminate slaughter associated with Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – and has tried to steer the United States away from a new possibly even more destructive war with Iran. As CIA director, he did stand by the brave analysts regarding their assessment that Iran had discarded its nuclear weapons program.

According to this favorable view of Panetta, his tradeoff – to avoid the mass killings from general warfare – has been to support targeted killings of suspected terrorists. In other words, Panetta has been in the camp generally associated with Vice President Joe Biden, urging narrower counterterrorism operations rather than broader counterinsurgency war.

Yet, this idea of tallying up possible large-scale civilian deaths – like the hundreds of thousands who died in Bush’s Iraq War – versus the smaller but still significant deaths from drone strikes makes for a difficult moral equation. It may explain why Leon Panetta was so eager to have Pope Benedict “pray for me.”

So, while it’s possible that historians will discover in decades to come that Panetta gave President Obama sage advice and tried to bend the arc of U.S. military violence downward, I, for one, remain deeply disappointed with Panetta and regretful of my earlier optimism.

I had the preconceived and, it turns out, misguided notion that Panetta, who a year earlier had denounced torture, and who brought with him a wealth of experience and innumerable contacts on Capitol Hill and in the federal bureaucracy, would be not only determined but also able clean up the mess at the CIA.

Moreover, I persuaded myself that I could expect from Panetta, a contemporary with the same education I received at the hands of the Jesuits including moral theology/ethics, might wear some insulation from power that corrupts.

I have learned, though, that no one is immune from the sirens of power, which is an alternative way to explain Panetta’s actions over the past four years. As for Jesuits, there are justice Jesuits like Dan Berrigan – and others like the ones that now run my alma mater Fordham.

The latter brand – either knowingly, or out of what Church theologians call “invincible ignorance” – seem to be happy riding shotgun for the system, including aggressive war, kidnapping, torture, the whole nine yards.  (For a recent, insightful essay on this issue, see “ Sticks and Drones, and Company Men: The Selective Outrage of the Liberal Caste,” by Jim Kavanagh.)

To me, it was painful to watch Panetta make the decision to become the CIA’s defense lawyer, rather than take charge as its director. He left in place virtually all those responsible for the “dark-side” abuses of the Cheney/Bush administration, and bent flexibly with the prevailing wind toward holding no one accountable.

Long forgotten is the fact that Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder initially gave some lip service to the concept of no one being above the law. Rhetoric is one thing, though; action another.

Counterattack on Torture

When Obama’s timid Attorney General, Eric Holder, gathered the courage to begin an investigation of torture and other war crimes implicating CIA officials past and present, he ran into a buzz saw operated by those inside the CIA and in key media outlets, like the neocon-dominated Washington Post. Those forces pulled out all the stops to quash the Department of Justice’s preliminary investigation.

This effort reached bizarre proportions when seven previous CIA directors — including three who were themselves implicated in planning and conducting torture and other abuses —  wrote to the President in September 2009, asking him to call off Holder. The letter and the motivation behind it could not have been more transparent or inappropriate.

 
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