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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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Obama and Holder caved. By all accounts, Panetta supported the former directors who, in my view, deserve the sobriquet “the seven moral dwarfs.”

Leon Panetta, like me, was commissioned in the U.S. Army when he graduated from college – he from the University of Santa Clara (I from Fordham). Entering the Army may have been the first time each of us swore a solemn oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” but it was hardly the last time.

Panetta, however, has displayed a willingness to disrespect the Constitution when it encumbers what the Obama administration wishes to do. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution reserves to Congress the power to declare or authorize war.

Granted, an unprecedentedly craven Congress has shown itself all too willing to abnegate that responsibility in recent years. Only a few members of the House and Senate seem to care very much when presidents act like kings and send off troops drawn largely from a poverty draft to wars not authorized (or simply rubber-stamped) by Congress. This sad state of affairs, however, does not absolve the Executive Branch from its duty to abide by Article 1, Section 8.

This matters – and matters very much. At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, pursued this issue with Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. Chafing belatedly over the unauthorized nature of the war in Libya, Sessions asked repeatedly what “legal basis” would the Obama administration rely on to do in Syria what it did in Libya.

Watching that part of the testimony it seemed to me that Sessions, a conservative Southern lawyer, was not at all faking it when he pronounced himself “almost breathless” as Panetta stonewalled time after time. Panetta made it explicitly clear that the administration does not believe it needs to seek congressional approval for wars like the one in Libya in which the United States contributed air power and intelligence support, though not ground troops.

Sessions: “I am really baffled. … The only legal authority that’s required to deploy the U.S. military [in combat] is the Congress and the President and the law and the Constitution.”

Panetta: “Let me just for the record be clear again, Senator, so there is no misunderstanding. When it comes to national defense, the President has the authority under the Constitution to act to defend this country, and we will, Sir.” (Here is the entire  7-minute video clip.) 

Panetta was also the first senior Obama official to assert that American citizens who are branded “terrorists” and are suspected of “trying to kill our people” can be targeted for death on Executive power alone.

In an interview with CBS 60 Minutes‘ Scott Pelley, Panetta was asked about the secret process the Obama administration uses to kill American citizens suspected of terrorism. He explained that the President himself approves the decision based on recommendations from top national security officials.

Panetta said, “if someone is a citizen of the United States, and is a terrorist, who wants to attack our people and kill Americans, in my book that person is a terrorist. And the reality is that under our laws, that person is a terrorist. And we’re required under a process of law, to be able to justify, that despite the fact that person may be a citizen, he is first and foremost a terrorist who threatens our people, and for that reason, we can establish a legal basis on which we oughta go after that individual, just as we go after bin Laden, just as we go after other terrorists. Why? Because their goal is to kill our people, and for that reason we have to defend ourselves.”

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