The Moral Torment of Leon Panetta

by , January 21, 2013

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.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta speaks with Pope Benedict XVI during an audience at the Vatican on Jan. 16, 2013. (Photo credit: Defense Department)

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.

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.

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.”

Now, after four years in this swamp of moral and legal relativism, Panetta has turned to Pope Benedict for prayers and blessings, an ironic choice since Benedict himself has shown a high tolerance for sloshing around in this muck.

In April 2008, Benedict visited the United States amid sordid disclosures about the Bush administration’s practices of torture and worldwide recognition that Bush had ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq based on false claims about WMD and ties to al-Qaeda.

On torture, reporting by ABC depicted George W. Bush’s most senior aides (Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Rice and Tenet) meeting multiple times in the White House during 2002-03 to sort out – complete with practical demonstrations – the most efficient mix of torture techniques for captured “terrorists.” When initially ABC attempted to insulate the President from this sordid activity, Bush responded that he knew all about it and had approved.

But Benedict maintained a discreet silence, placing feel-good scenes of happy Catholics cheering his presence over a moral obligation to condemn wrongdoing, a pattern that has recurred far too frequently in the history of the Vatican.

When I visited Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum in West Jerusalem a few years ago, I experienced painful reminders of what happens when the Church allows itself to be captured by Empire. An acquiescent church loses whatever residual moral authority it may have had.

At the entrance to the museum, a quotation by German essayist Kurt Tucholsky set a universally applicable tone: “A country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates.”

Still more compelling words came from Imre Bathory, a Hungarian who put his own life at grave risk by helping to save Jews from the concentration camps: “I know that when I stand before God on Judgment Day, I shall not be asked the question posed to Cain: ‘Where were you when your brother’s blood was crying out to God?’”

It is a question that Leon Panetta may want to ask himself as he retires from government service at age 74 and retreats to his walnut farm in California. For Panetta’s sake, let’s hope papal prayer will help him sort it all out.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served as an Army Infantry/Intelligence officer in the early 60s, and then for 27 years as a CIA analyst. He serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

This article was originally originally published at Consortium News.

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