Is Leon Panetta a Saint—or a War Criminal?

David R. Henderson’s Introduction:

The first part of this article’s title is absurd, right? How could the head of the CIA, a man who sends drones to kill alleged terrorists and ends up killing not only terrorists, but also many innocent people, be a saint? Well, you probably don’t live in the Monterey area. I do. Leon Panetta is thought of as the local boy who made good. After President Obama decided to nominate Panetta for secretary of defense, the local newspaper, the Monterey County Herald, ran a pro-Panetta editorial making the case that he would be a fine secretary. Then, after Panetta’s participation in the successful plot to kill Osama bid Laden, many locals, including the Herald’s executive editor, Joe Livernois, advocated naming some local landmark after him. (For a letter of mine regarding an earlier disagreement with Livernois, see this.) Some, including a fairly smart local lawyer I used to be friends with, even advocated calling the local airport simply “The Leon.” Every few days in the Herald appears another encomium to Panetta.

Before the bin Laden killing, Phillip Crawford, an ally of mine in the Monterey County peace movement, a graduate of the Monterey College of Law, and a member of the National Lawyers’ Guild, wrote a hard-hitting op-ed taking on the Herald’s rosy view of Panetta. I had read one of Phillip’s letters to the editor attacking conservatives and, although it was well-written, I didn’t like the content or tone. But I do like him. Phillip asked some of his pro-peace allies to sign the op-ed, and, after he made a couple of small changes, I agreed. By the time the piece was submitted, bin Laden had been killed and the chance of the piece being published, already low, seemed to have fallen to zero. Sure enough, the Herald rejected the piece last week.

The good news, though, is that the effort was a cooperative one with someone whom I don’t agree with on other issues. Working on antiwar projects with people of different views was the main reason Lawrence Samuels and I pushed to get Libertarians for Peace in the Peace Coalition of Monterey County in the first place. So here, with Phillip Crawford’s consent, is the piece we submitted to the Monterey County Herald.

The Case Against Leon Panetta
by Phillip Crawford and David R. Henderson

The Monterey Herald’s glowing endorsement of Leon Panetta’s nomination as secretary of defense was very disappointing. The Herald’s editorial board overlooked serious humanitarian and legal concerns raised by Mr. Panetta’s conduct while at the Central Intelligence Agency.

As director of the CIA, Mr. Panetta has been in charge of CIA programs that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Pakistan.

According to the Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest and most widely read English-language newspaper, of the 44 Predator strikes carried out by U.S. drones in the tribal areas of Pakistan in 2009, only five were able to hit their actual targets, killing five key al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but at the cost of over 700 innocent civilians. For each al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist killed by U.S. drones, 140 innocent Pakistanis also had to die.

In June 2009, a CIA drone fired a Hellfire missile that destroyed a “suspected militant hideout” in a border village in Pakistan, burying a family inside the ruins of the building. When rescuers rushed to help the injured, the hovering drone fired a second missile, killing 13 of those seeking to help the victims of the first strike. On the next day, a funeral procession for the dead was also hit, killing 80 civilians. The funeral attack was reportedly aimed at Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud, though officials acknowledged that he was not killed in the salvo.

The New York Times reported in September 2010 that the CIA had drastically increased its bombing campaign in the mountains of Pakistan.

Under the Geneva Conventions and other international laws, it is a war crime to launch indiscriminate attacks affecting the civilian population or civilian objects with the knowledge that such attacks will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects. This distinction between combatants and noncombatants is fundamental to all humanitarian law.

Furthermore, the CIA drone program, as it currently operates, is a system of extrajudicial execution in which people who may or may not be terrorists are targeted for assassination even when they are nowhere near a battlefield. The CIA has no more legal right to assassinate suspected terrorists on the streets of downtown Karachi than Pakistani intelligence agencies have to assassinate suspected terrorists on the streets of Carmel.

The CIA employees who carry out these attacks from their desks in Langley, Va., are civilians. They are fighters without uniforms or insignia, directly participating in hostilities, employing armed force contrary to the laws and customs of war. The CIA pilots are civilians violating the requirement of distinction—a core concept of armed conflict—by direct participation in hostilities. Like the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters they target, they are unlawful combatants.

Mr. Panetta was also instrumental in derailing any investigation into the CIA’s illegal use of torture, despite treaties that require the United States to investigate and prosecute those who engage in torture. By arguing for impunity for torturers, Mr. Panetta has helped ensure than such atrocities will happen in the future.

The secretary of defense is chief executive officer of the most powerful military force in human history. A candidate for such an important post must possess both respect for human rights and respect for the rule of law. Unfortunately, Mr. Panetta’s record at the CIA creates serious doubts as to whether he possesses either.

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at