CHARLIE ROSE: Welcome to our program. We begin the new season with a conversation with Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense for the United States about America and its role in the world.
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: We will go after al Qaeda in the FATA so that they never have the opportunity to attack this country again.
ROSE: But when you say that, you mean by drone missiles or more?
PANETTA: Well, I’m not going to get into the particulars of the operations, but it’s pretty clear that we have very successful operations going after al Qaeda and after their leadership in the FATA. And I have to tell you that the Pakistanis have given us some cooperation in that effort. They really have. You know, they’ve given us the opportunity to be able to conduct those operations. They’ve given us the opportunity and worked with us to go after targets together. They just, as a matter of fact, within the last 24 hours caught an individual called Moritani, who is someone that we’ve been after for a long time.
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ROSE: Leon Panetta for the hour, next.
ANNOUNCER: From our studios in New York City, this is Charlie Rose.
ROSE: We begin our new fall season with Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense for the United States. He received a confirmation vote of 100-to-zero. He was formerly the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, appointed by President Obama when he came to office. He served for 16 years in the United States Congress. He was director of the Office of Management Budget and he was also chief of staff of President Clinton.
We want to talk about defense policy and also look back at some of the things that happened during his tenure as director of the CIA. I’m very pleased to have Leon Panetta at this table for the beginning of a new season.
How do you assess the challenge to our security over the next 10 years?
PANETTA: I think the fundamental mission is one of protecting the country. And obviously in the intelligence arena you know it’s about gathering intelligence to provide to the president and leaders, so that they can make the right decisions about what needed to be done. In the job of secretary of defense, it’s about actually doing the operations. It’s about being in charge of the services, our men and women in uniform who have to actually go out there and do the mission.
And that means that what you have to do is make sure that there is a defined mission, that they clearly are doing whatever is necessary to try to achieve that mission, and that in the end, the goal is, by achieving that mission, that you’re making this country safer.
We’re facing a myriad of threats these days, threats not only from terrorism -- a continuing threat from terrorism. We’re involved in two wars. We’ve been involved in a NATO mission in Libya. We continue to face threats from Iran and North Korea. We’re living in a world where cyber security is now something to be concerned about in terms of cyber attacks. We also are living in a world in which there are rising powers, countries like China and Brazil and India, not to mention obviously Russia and others, that provide a challenge to us not only in trying to cooperate with them, but making sure that they don’t undermine the stability of the world.
These are a myriad of challenges that confront the United States of America today. And our responsibility at the Defense Department, as it is at the State Department, is to do everything we can to make sure that as we engage in those various threats and crises that we are trying to do our utmost to protect the American people.
ROSE: You may be the first secretary of defense who looks at a shrinking Defense Department budget. How does that make your job?
PANETTA: It becomes another part of the challenge. How do you -- how do you face your responsibility to provide for the national security of this country and at the same time try to meet the fiscal requirements that the country is facing? I don’t think you have to choose. I’ve said this a number of times. I don’t think you have to choose between our fiscal security and our national security. Clearly we are facing a crisis because of these huge deficits that the country is facing and clearly defense is going to have to play a role in trying to achieve whatever savings we can achieve without undermining our national defense and our national strength. That’s going to be the challenge: How do I achieve savings? How do I try to implement efficiencies and at the same time make sure that we protect the strongest and finest military force in the world?
I think there are ways to do it. Obviously the Congress and the president signed off on an initial set of savings that we’re going to have to implement. And --
ROSE: Four hundred billion dollars over --
PANETTA: Something like $400 billion --
ROSE: -- over 12 years.
PANETTA: -- over 12 years.
We are -- I’m working with the service chiefs. I’m working with all of our staffs within the Pentagon to kind of say, okay, how can we do this in a way that obviously implements efficiencies, implements reforms, but creates a national defense that not only protects us today, but will protect us in five to 10 years down the road?
So I think we have to establish a vision about where we want our national defense to be and be able to get there. It’s going to have to be more agile. It’s going to have to be more flexible. We’re going to have to quickly deploy those forces. We’re going to have to have the kind of weaponry that will assist them in that effort. We’re going to have to achieve better efficiencies and procurement, as well as in other management areas.
And at the same time, we’re going to have to protect our commitment to the troops and their families because at the heart of our national defense system is a volunteer force. So we’ve got to be able to do all of this without breaking faith with those that put their lives on the line ultimately and really are the ones who are the key to whether or not our defense system works or not.
ROSE: So are you saying you draw the line at changing retirement benefits for members of the armed services?
PANETTA: You know, having been OMB director and chairman of the Budget Committee in the Congress, I have always approached these issues by saying we’ve got to put everything on the table. You’ve got to look at everything. I think that’s the way to do it.
ROSE: From the time of benefits to weapons systems to making sure that your priorities -- having mine resistant vehicles especially something that servicemen have been talking about for --
PANETTA: I think you’ve got to look -- you’ve got to look at everything. You’ve got to be able to talk it through. You’ve got to look at those systems. You’ve got to decide what’s important to keep, what’s not, you know, important, what reforms can be made. When you’re facing a $400 billion reduction over 12 years, if you’re going to do it right, you’ve got to look at every area.
Now, does that mean that we have to, you know, hollow out the force? No. Does it mean we have to break faith with troops and their families? No. I mean, I think there are ways to implement these reforms in the future that don’t break faith with people that have been deployed a number of times and that have depended on the benefits that we’ve provide to them. That’s important.
I think we’ve got to -- you know, in the procurement area alone, the amount of money that is spent in that area requires that we implement the best efficiencies, that we implement competition.
ROSE: You have been to Afghanistan. You’ve been to Iraq. You have traveled and met foreign ministers and foreign secretaries of defense and foreign ministers of defense. What are they saying to you that they want from the United States?
PANETTA: I think -- I think the most important thing that they stress is that they have to be able to trust the United States -- that when we give our word, when we say we’re going to do something, when we say we’re going to help them, when we say we’re going to be there that they have to trust that that’s going to happen. That’s very important.
ROSE: That we will not abandon them.
PANETTA: That we will not just kind of turn our back and walk away from them. So the element of trust is very important. The element of reliability is very important. The fact that we have to be a dependable alliance partner is very important -- that they can depend on us.
But when it comes to our troops, I think the most important issue for our troops is in many ways the same thing -- trust that we are going to be there, that when we say we’re going to provide certain benefits, we’ll stick to it, that when we say we’re going to be able to not break faith with our troops or their families that we’ll stick to that, that we will care for them if they’re wounded, that we will be there for them because of what they’re doing to try to protect this country.
So I would say that the most common -- the most common element I see, whether I’m talking to a defense minister or whether I’m talking to a trooper, is trust.
ROSE: Let’s look at two -- two wars. Number one is Iraq.
PANETTA: We are in the process of drawing down our combat forces and I think the president has made clear that we will draw down our combat forces -- all of our combat forces, by the end of the year. The real question now is going to be, you know, what kind of presence are we going to continue to have there or are we going to continue to have a presence there?
They have indicated -- the Iraqis have indicated, President Maliki has indicated that he does want to have some kind of training assistance. And so the issue of what that will look like, how many will be there is something that has to be negotiated with the Iraqis.
ROSE: What’s the influence of Iran today in Iraq?
PANETTA: I think Iran continues to try to exert a very, very large influence with regards to what’s happening in Iraq.
ROSE: In what way?
PANETTA: They -- they clearly continue to provide weaponry to Shia extremist groups. They clearly try to exert pressure on the government of Iraq. They continue to try to make clear that they want to have a large influence over the direction of what happens in Iraq as opposed to the United States or anybody else. And the end result is that we remain very concerned that Iran continues to undermine and tries to undermine the stability of Iraq and its future.
ROSE: So what do Iraqi officials say about this?
PANETTA: The Iraqis share the concern. I mean, President Maliki -- I’ve talked to him directly about this issue and said, look, we can’t tolerate this. We cannot tolerate having Iranians provide weapons to extremists to kill Americans. That is not tolerable. And --
ROSE: And he says?
PANETTA: -- and he agrees. He agrees. That cannot be tolerated. And to his credit, he’s actually taken steps to try to make clear to the Iranians that this cannot happen. And beyond that, they’ve actually conducted operations against some of these groups to try to reduce their ability to conduct those kinds of attacks. So I really can’t complain about the cooperation we’ve gotten from the Iraqis in assisting us to try to go after these groups that are attacking our forces.
ROSE: What’s the timetable for Afghanistan?
PANETTA: On Afghanistan, the timetable right now, pursuant to what the president has directed is that we will begin the process of drawing down the surge group.
ROSE: Thirty-three thousand?
PANETTA: We’ll start with 10,000 by the end of this year and then the remainder will be done by the end of the summer, in 2012. And then obviously the planning will begin then for the larger drawdown through 2014. So our goal right now is to, by 2014 again, be able to draw down most of our combat forces.
ROSE: What is your assessment of how that battle is going between the Taliban and the Afghan forces and the American forces and the NATO forces?
PANETTA: I think -- I think right now -- I really feel good progress has been made. First of all, we’ve got a very good team there with General John Allen and with Ambassador Crocker. They are working very effectively with President Karzai. They’re working very effectively with the Afghans in trying to make sure that we put the best policies in place.
Secondly, we have in fact seriously weakened the Taliban. We expected a greater offensive this year than took place. And I think in large measure the reason it didn’t take place is because -- because of our operations, because of the increased security, we have reduced the influence of the Taliban and as a result have given Afghanistan back to the Afghanistans to be able to control their own faith.
Thirdly, we have increased the number in the army and in the police significantly. We’re on target. And they are doing the job. More importantly, they’re doing the job. They’re going out with our troops. They’re putting themselves on the line. They’re in battle and they’re doing a good job. So I’m feeling much better about the situation in terms of as we transition, being able to turn more of this over to them.
The fourth part is the ability to transition to governing. And that’s the larger question mark -- the ability of the Afghans to be able to exert the kind of governing that they have to do in order to provide stability for the future.
ROSE: And are we making any progress on that?
PANETTA: I think that --
ROSE: Are you confident that Karzai is trying?
PANETTA: I think he is trying. And I think we’ve made kind of the first transition. We’ve transitioned a number of areas now over to the Afghans. That’s the first tranche, as they say, of areas that we’ve said you’re now in control. And it’s working very well. We’ve got a number of other tranches to go through, and they’re going to get tougher as we go along. But the ability to transition, the ability to give them the ability to provide security, provide the governing is going to be very important.
And I think -- I think while the toughest areas still remain to be done that I’m at least encouraged that these first steps in the transition are working and working well and we’re learning lessons. We’re implementing those lessons. And I think it gives me some hope that by 2014, we’re going to be well on the path towards making the kind of transition to an Afghan that can secure itself and govern itself for the future.
ROSE: And 2014 is when Karzai’s term ends.
PANETTA: That’s correct.
ROSE: His brother was assassinated by a member of the security team and the Taliban took credit. I mean, they have begun a campaign of those kinds of assassinations. Do you view that as a sign of strength or weakness?
PANETTA: I think it’s a sign of weakness. It isn’t -- they have not been conducting the large attacks that they have in the past. They’ve been unable to do that. And I think they’re resorting to this kind of pinpoint assassinations as a way to make a point that they’re still around and they still can cause trouble in Afghanistan. But I read it as a sign of weakness, not as a sign of strength.
ROSE: Do we negotiate with bad Taliban?
PANETTA: Well, I think -- you know, if you’re going to engage in reconciliation, you’ve got to reach out to those that are interested in seeing whether they meet our conditions or not. I mean, the key there is meeting the conditions that the United States, that the Afghans sat down. And those conditions are pretty clear. They’ve got to be able to stop the violence, to give up their arms, to become a part of the government there.
ROSE: To give up their arms.
PANETTA: To give up their arms, to become a part of their government, and to renounce al Qaeda. I mean, those are kind of the basic conditions that we’ve always said are important in terms of reconciliation. So those discussions continue. I think they have to be part of the political process that ultimately comes together in Afghanistan if it’s going to be successful.
ROSE: And who’s handling those negotiations? This is the U.S. Military? Is it the Afghan government?
ROSE: Or is it both? (Laughter.)
PANETTA: It’s got to be both. You can’t -- I mean -- and the Afghans have to, I think, as the president’s made clear, the Afghans have to lead this effort and they are. Obviously, we have to be part of that process. Frankly, Pakistan ought to be part of that process as well because if you’re going to really have successful reconciliation, all of those elements have to be part of the solution.
ROSE: You’ve had a meeting with the head of ISI after Osama bin Laden had been killed. Questions began to rose of are they on whose side. Are you -- (laughs) -- this is not a new question for you. (Laughter.)
PANETTA: No it’s not. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Okay, what’s the answer? I mean, do you believe that this government, the United States government that you represent has full cooperation with the ISI in terms of the battle in Afghanistan?
PANETTA: As I’ve often said, it’s a very complicated relationship with the Pakistanis.
ROSE: But you met with the head of ISI and you had a chance to --
PANETTA: No, no, I’ve met with General Pasha a number of times and also with General Kayani a number of times and had made very clear to them that -- you know, that they can’t pick and choose among terrorists -- that terrorism is a threat to their country. It’s a threat to our country.
ROSE: They can’t have their relationship with the Haqqani group.
PANETTA: No, they’ve got -- I mean, they cannot -- if you’re against terrorism, you have to be against all forms of terrorism. You can’t just pick and choose among them. Secondly, that the United States has responsibility to protect our country. And we are going to protect our country from those that would plan to attack the United States. And al Qaeda without question and a large presence in FATA, the tribal areas of Pakistan, they were planning -- continuing to plan to attack our country from there. And I made very clear to the Pakistanis that the United States of America is going to defend ourselves. And if that means going after them in the FATA, we will.
ROSE: We will invade their sovereignty.
PANETTA: We will -- we will go after al Qaeda in the FATA so that they never have the opportunity to attack this country again.
ROSE: But when you say that, you mean by drone missiles or more?
PANETTA: Well, I’m not going to get into the particulars of the operations, but it’s pretty clear that we have very successful operations going after al Qaeda and after their leadership in the FATA. And I have to tell you that the Pakistanis have given us some cooperation in that effort. They really have. You know, they’ve given us the opportunity to be able to conduct those operations. They’ve given us the opportunity and worked with us to go after targets together. They just as a matter of fact, within the last 24 hours caught an individual called Moritani, who is someone that we’ve been after for a long time.
ROSE: The Pakistanis caught him.
PANETTA: The Pakistanis caught him working with us. So they have, in fact worked with us in a number of ways to go after those kinds of targets. And they’ve indicated a willingness to do that.
At the same time, you know, I think we have to recognize that Pakistan is a critical country in that region of the world not only in terms of trying to give us some cooperation in the war that we are conducting there, but also because they are a nuclear power, also because they themselves are in the effort to try to confront terrorism there, but also because they can be extremely important to us in the effort to provide stability in Afghanistan and other areas. They have to be -- they have to play a role in that.
So for that reason, you know, while we don’t agree on everything they do, obviously, while we have controversies and we have differences in a number of areas, we’ve got to do everything possible to work with them to try to make that --
ROSE: The shockwave of the killing of Osama bin Laden for them in a place that people said hide in plain sight, have they gotten over that mission?
PANETTA: It’s taken a while. They obviously -- they obviously were shocked by what took place. And I think it -- you know, in a country where you don’t have kind of strong political leadership, everybody kind of relied on strong military leadership. And suddenly there are questions raised about how strong was the military leadership there if in fact bin Laden could establish a presence in Abbottabad, not too far from their West Point --
ROSE: Their military academy, exactly.
PANETTA: -- their military academy and other --
ROSE: And so what do you now believe about what they knew and who knew that he was there?
PANETTA: You know, everyone has had their suspicions because here’s Abbottabad, here’s bin Laden in the middle of -- being near their West Point, being near some of their military compounds, but I have to tell you I have never seen any direct evidence that they themselves were directly involved --
ROSE: The new leadership of ISI and the military.
PANETTA: That’s correct.
ROSE: But he clearly had to have a support group.
PANETTA: I -- again, it’s a personal suspicion. I don’t -- I -- he must have -- I mean, the interesting thing, Charlie, was this. That you would assume that bin Laden, who’s in this large compound -- I mean, our suspicions were always, well, they got to have a tunnel for an escape. They’ve got to have a hole in the wall that they can hide in. They’ve got to have a way to get out the backdoor if there’s any kind of raid. Surely they’ve planned for all of that. I mean, we -- I can’t tell you how long we discussed the possibilities of what would happen.
ROSE: You get there and he’d be gone.
PANETTA: Once we raid and how –
PANETTA: -- and he’s gone or how is he gone. And yet, when he was trapped on the third floor of that compound, what it told me is that -- that he was -- he was hoping to get some kind of warning if something like that were to happen.
ROSE: You’re suggesting he thought that there was some source in the Pakistani government would tell him you got time to get out because I know the Americans are coming because they told us.
PANETTA: Well, you know, I can’t -- I can’t tell you that it was a Pakistani individual or ISI or anybody else that would provide that warning, but I am convinced that somebody was targeted to provide that warning in the event that something like that would happen. But I can’t tell you who that was.
ROSE: And it didn’t happen.
PANETTA: And it didn’t happen.
ROSE: Tell me about the mission -- I was going to talk about it later, but this -- you have had, I would assume, two defining moments as CIA director, your previous job. One was a loss of those brave seven patriots in a remote outpost in Afghanistan. We’ll talk about that in a minute. That was a awful, awful moment for the United States, for the CIA, for the director of the CIA, and for everybody. Secondly, it was this capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. Tell me about this mission.
PANETTA: You know, as the president made clear in that session in the Oval Office, he said, you know, your first priority is to go after bin Laden and it was my priority. I mean, I can’t tell you how many people basically would say, why the hell can’t you find bin Laden. Why haven’t you found bin Laden?
ROSE: I can tell you, I mean, people at this table have said that.
PANETTA: I’m sure. (Laughter.) I’m sure.
ROSE: Even from foreign governments.
PANETTA: No, absolutely, absolutely. So I mean -- as director of the CIA, I mean, first question I had is, all right, so what’s going on? What are we doing? And it was pretty clear that there was an ongoing task force there that had been working this issue for a number of years, following every lead, running into dead ends, not being able to find any kind of break in terms of the information for a long time, but nevertheless they continued to pursue every possible lead. And I --
ROSE: Even if it turned out to be a dry hole, you followed every lead.
PANETTA: Even if it was a dry hole, you continued to go after it. And what I required was that they provide me weekly summaries of what was going on, whether it was good or bad, whether they found anything or not, I wanted to get a continuing update as to what was going on. And it was, I think sometime last summer that for the first time we got a real break that they were able to go after these couriers that had worked for bin Laden, had been able to identify them, and had been able to follow them to this compound. And when we obviously looked at that compound and the nature of it, here’s this large compound with 18 foot walls around that compound, and on the third floor, which I -- which was obviously the most interesting for me -- on the third floor, they had an eight foot wall around the third floor. Normally, if you have a third floor, you like the view. (Laughter.)
ROSE: You don’t want to be viewed.
PANETTA: So it was pretty clear that something was unusual about the compound.
ROSE: But there was no photograph. There was no evidence he was there.
PANETTA: That’s correct.
ROSE: You did not say to the president, we have a picture, we have a testimony --
PANETTA: That’s correct.
ROSE: -- that he’s there.
PANETTA: That’s correct. I mean, I -- look, you know, we knew these couriers had worked for him. We knew that this was an unusual compound.
ROSE: And what would they do? They’d go bring messages in and out? Bring food in and out? Bring --
PANETTA: We assumed that that -- I mean, that’s what we were able to observe was them doing that kind of thing. And we tracked it for a long time trying to determine whether or not we could find bin Laden there. And what ultimately happened because of a tremendous expertise in the intelligence community, they were actually able ultimately to identify the number of people in the families that were there and that the families that were there resembled very much the family that we thought bin Laden had. And, you know, combining all of those factors --
ROSE: Did anybody tell you he was there?
PANETTA: Nobody told us. We had no direct evidence that bin Laden was there. It was all circumstantial.
ROSE: Right. Combining all the factors you started to say.
PANETTA: And combining all the factors from all of our intelligence that we had, both the signals intelligence as well as the observation, as well as human intelligence, the bottom line was that while we could not say definitely that bin Laden was there, it was the best case we had on bin Laden since Tora Bora as to his location.
ROSE: Had anybody seen him between Tora Bora and then?
PANETTA: Not that we could determine.
ROSE: (But you had ?) -- been looking and trying and talking to everybody.
PANETTA: That’s right.
ROSE: And no one could say, I know he was in -- because they thought at one point he was in a cave in Pakistan.
PANETTA: Of course. That was the --
ROSE: That was the conventional wisdom.
PANETTA: That was the conventional wisdom that he was someplace either in a cave or elsewhere.
ROSE: But you must have had people say to you, it doesn’t make sense. This is not a man who’s going to be in a cave in Afghanistan. He’s somewhere in Pakistan, because we found a lot of other people in Pakistan.
PANETTA: Yes. Yes. I mean, there were all kinds of theories obviously that you’re dealing with, you know, as to where he was, where he could possibly be living, was his family near him -- I mean, all of those questions had been looked at time and time and time again. But as I said, for the first time with the Abbottabad compound what we were able to do was to assemble enough information that it gave us at least some sense of confidence that this was something worth pursuing.
ROSE: Why did this story develop at the beginning, instantly, that somehow he had resisted or something like that?
PANETTA: You know, it was obvious that they were caught by surprise and that -- there was resistance. I mean, there was a firefight --
ROSE: But not by him.
PANETTA: -- that took place. No. That’s right. By the brothers. But once a firefight begins and you’re going after bin Laden, you have to assume the worst about what’s going to happen.
ROSE: So as soon as they saw him, they were going to shoot him.
PANETTA: Well, they knew that in the end they were dealing with the worst criminal in the world for what he had done on 9/11.
ROSE: And what did you know as you watched this -- as you and the president watched this mission unfold?
PANETTA: Well, you know, just a quick word leading up to it, there were obviously a lot of questions raised about the mission and the risks involved. I mean, you have to assume you’re going 150 miles into another country with the very best in our military conducting that effort. But, nevertheless, they’re going a long way in, that they could be found out; that once they got there, bin Laden might not be there; that they could be in a firefight with the Pakistanis at that point. How do we get them out? So there were a number of risks that were involved here.
And I have to say that all of those were discussed thoroughly by the NSC and with the president. And to the president’s credit, I think he probably made one of the toughest decisions that a president can make which is that -- you know, the decision to go ahead with that mission knowing all of the risks that were involved.
When we actually conducted the mission, because it was a so-called Title 50 operation, I was basically operating out of the CIA and working with our military liaisons that were actually conducting the operation. And I was there following it, trying to see what happened. At the White House, obviously, they were assembled and following the same thing.
ROSE: But you could see and hear in real time?
PANETTA: We knew what was taking place. And when the helicopter went down, the first helicopter went down, obviously a lot of nervousness about what that would mean to the mission and --
ROSE: Thinking of helicopters in the desert.
PANETTA: You saw that in the faces of the people at the White House as well. But, you know, one of the things that gave me a tremendous amount of confidence in this mission was the quality, ability, experience of the military Special Forces that went in. I mean, they were incredible. They do these operations all the time, but their ability to go in, if something happens, they continue the mission. They went in and did what they had to do and they got out of there. It was incredible. And it just restored my sense of confidence that these are the very best we have.
ROSE: What have we learned from the treasure trove of information on the hard drive of the computer?
PANETTA: I think -- you know, we did get a lot of intelligence. I mean, that’s another great thing. I mean, these guys are going in. They know they have to go after bin Laden, they get bin Laden.
ROSE: They’re in a firefight.
PANETTA: They know -- they’re in a firefight. They’ve got to get out of there and yet they gather all of the intelligence they can gather and bring it out. So that was another remarkable achievement that they were able to get as much intelligence as they did. And as a result of that, obviously we’ve got tremendous insights into the bin Laden operation and the things that they were after.
ROSE: It is said that we learned that he was short of cash.
PANETTA: Well, they were hurting in terms of their financing. And we actually knew this from intelligence even before the raid that they were having a much harder time developing the financial support that they had had in the past. And I think a large part of that was frankly the efforts to go after their leadership and undermine their leadership, their command and control. When you have people on the run, it makes it very tough to raise money and stay on the run at the same time.
ROSE: I mean, this raid and the significance of drones has made a real -- it changed the game.
PANETTA: Well, you know, I think we have learned a great deal about the capabilities that we do have to be able to conduct very sophisticated and targeted operations. These are probably the most precise weapons in the history of warfare. And they are used very effectively to go after a very precise target. And that’s what makes them effective.
ROSE: And still there are civilian casualties sometimes -- unavoidable?
PANETTA: There are, but I have to tell you as director of the CIA -- and that’s been true not only for me but for those that have followed me -- that if there are any civilians in the shot, you don’t take it
ROSE: In Libya, since they have now captured the compound of Gadhafi, there are stories about cooperation between the Libyan security apparatus and the CIA and the British intelligence. Can you tell us about that?
PANETTA: I can’t obviously go into the details of that kind of operation. I think it suffices to say that there was clearly a State Department presence and an intelligence presence there to gather intelligence as to what was happening there, what was going on with the TNC, what was going on with the opposition and to try to learn as much as possible about their abilities, capabilities, weaknesses, strengths in order to try to do what we can to assist.
ROSE: Also might have been some rendition.
PANETTA: There was -- again, I’m not going to talk about the specific details.
ROSE: Arab spring -- how does it change America’s -- I mean, how does it change the battle against terrorism, first of all, and how does it change the reality in terms of the U.S. presence in that part of the world?
PANETTA: You know, I really do view the Arab spring as a monumental moment in terms of the politics of the politics of the Middle East and the future of the Middle East. I think the reality is that the changes that are taking place, people coming together to try to seek the same kind of rights and opportunities and freedoms that others enjoy in this world and to eliminate dictatorships that have prevailed there, all of this I think is a good sign for the future. I mean, it doesn’t mean there aren’t risks here. Of course there are risks involved as this happens.
But the fact that it’s happened in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, in Syria -- these changes I think, A, send a clear signal to Iran that they’re not winning in that part of the world. They send a clear signal to al Qaeda that the jihadist ideology is not winning in that part of the world.
OSE: What’s winning is this sense of a push for dignity and democracy --
ROSE: -- and having a role in your own future.
PANETTA: Exactly. And that’s what counts. And it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to challenge the United States and other countries to try to really exercise the right kind of leadership as this takes place. I mean, it’s very important as these changes take place that we allow the people in those countries to take the lead and do this the way they feel is important to achieve, but that we provide whatever support we can -- the United States, NATO, our allies, the Arab League, all working together to try to provide a support system as these changes take place.
ROSE: Syria -- does that offer the possibility of a participation by outside forces?
PANETTA: Charlie, as you deal with each of these changes that are taking place in that part of the world, I don’t think you can kind of take a cookie-cutter approach and say, you know, what worked here is going to going here, is going to work here. You’ve got to take these case by case.
ROSE: It depends on the international institutions like the army in Egypt on the one hand --
PANETTA: Exactly. Exactly.
ROSE: -- a tribal society in Libya.
PANETTA: I mean, you had the military in Egypt play a large role. You had a much more organized opposition in Libya. In Syria this is very much a people movement that’s taking place. And I think the approach there has been to try to put as much international pressure, sanctions on Assad, as much pressure as we can to try to force him to step down. When you start shooting your own people in the streets, you lose any legitimacy to power. And I think that’s what’s happened with Assad.
ROSE: Even the Iranians -- even the supreme leader in a speech has said to -- even though they are backing the Syrians because of the relationship -- has said, you can’t do this.
PANETTA: You can’t do this. You cannot do that and expect to be legitimate in the eyes of the people of that country. And I think Assad’s days, just like Gadhafi, are numbered.
ROSE: Where is Gadhafi? (Laughter.)
PANETTA: Well, we would all love to know the answer to that one. (Laughter.) We’ll find him.
ROSE: Do you think he’s likely in Libya?
PANETTA: You know, I don’t know. I think he’s been taking a lot of steps to make sure that in the end he could try to get out if he had to. But as to where, when and how that will take place, we just don’t know.
ROSE: I mean, he had to have thought about this.
PANETTA: I have to believe he did.
ROSE: The “Washington Post” are doing a series of pieces and you know what the subject is. The subject is -- here, since September 11th, CIA’s focus has taken a lethal turn. The Counterterrorism Center grows. So it’s a different CIA now. And people worry that it’s not just intelligence gathering, it’s the militarization of the CIA.
PANETTA: Yes. Well, you know, I think we do have to be cautious about how far the CIA does engage with regards to operations. But, you know, part of the mission here, part of the goal, as I said, is to protect the United States of America. And at the CIA you do that obviously by gathering the very best intelligence you can and making sure that it’s accurate, making sure that it provides the best information you can possibly give the leaders of the country so that they can make the right decisions. That’s an important role for the CIA and one that continues.
But, secondly, there are going to be some operations that have to be conducted. Sometimes it’s for the purpose of gathering human intelligence. Sometimes it’s for the purpose of going after an enemy where the operations that they can conduct, the CIA can conduct are the most effective way to be able to go after an enemy. And I think the president of the United States needs to have that kind of flexibility.
ROSE: So if you need the CIA to do the job, then they’re prepared to do the job.
ROSE: And if it includes a military kind of action, a paramilitary kind of action, they’re prepared to do the job.
PANETTA: I think in the end, the president of the United States -- this is not the CIA operating on its own. This is the CIA operating pursuant to the directions of the president of the United States. And if the president of the United States believes that that’s the best way to try to protect this country, the president ought to have the flexibility to do that.
ROSE: Are we changing the distinctions between what groups do what in military warfare in the 21st century, in 2011?
PANETTA: I don’t think there’s any question that if you’re going to have an effective defense system for the United States of America that it has to adapt to the threats that are out there. You can’t just say, you know, here’s a particular threat that’s coming in the United States so we’re going to invade and we’re going to put 200,000 there --
ROSE: So it’s the Marines and the Navy -- yes.
PANETTA: -- and attack. You’ve got to look at each threat. You’ve got to look at each crisis and determine what’s the most effective way to be able to respond. And, as I said at the beginning, we’re dealing with a myriad of threats. These aren’t just coming in one fashion. They’re coming in a number of directions. We are fighting some wars. We’ve got troops on the ground that are fighting wars in a very conventional way in terms of both Iraq and Afghanistan.
But, at the same time, you know, we are deploying forces that are going after targets. The Special Forces operations have become much more effective at being able to target those who would plan to attack us. And that has become an effective operation as well.
You mentioned the CIA’s operations. When it comes to Iran and North Korea, how do we confront the threats of two countries that are rogue countries, that if they develop a nuclear capability could represent a real threat to the peace in the world. How do we deal with that kind of threat? You have to approach that from a different angle as well. Cyber attacks -- you know, we get literally hundreds of thousands of attacks now that come in through cyber. How do we defend against it, but also how can we be aggressive to be able to go after and know when these attacks are coming.
And, also, just force projection. The United States in many ways, particularly with regards to Asia, the best way we check power in that part of the world is through force projection into that area.
ROSE: So you say to everybody in the region, especially the Chinese, we are a Pacific power and we intend to stay a Pacific power.
PANETTA: Exactly. Exactly. And you’ve got to make that point. So when you look at that myriad of threats, the United States’ defense system cannot be locked into one kind of SOP or standard approach. We have got to be flexible. We’ve got to be agile. And we’ve got to able to respond effectively to each threat.
ROSE: And when are we prepared to go in because of extreme human rights violations? We went to Libya because Benghazi was about ready to be overrun by Gadhafi’s forces.
PANETTA: I guess I approach it this way. I mean, the fundamental principle that ought to guide our application of force is whether or not we’re protecting the national security interests of this country and whether we consider something to be a threat to our security. That ought to be kind of the first premise. But the second --
ROSE: That’s the first question, but it might not -- that answer, that might not necessarily determine whether you proceed further.
PANETTA: Exactly. Exactly. Because the second part of this is that we also have to be part of an international effort to try to make certain that we are fulfilling our responsibilities as partners in the world to deal with the challenges that may come up, the threats that may come up. And in this situation, when the United Nations made the determination that humanitarian lives were at stake, passed a resolution that said we ought to take steps to try to protect those lives, and the Arab League took steps to say we ought to take steps here to try to protect them as well -- when all of that came together, it seems to me that the United States as a world leader and a world partner has a responsibility to say, we’re going to be there when you need us to be able to ensure that we are accomplishing the mission that the U.N. and others say we need to accomplish. It’s that element of trust that I talk about.
ROSE: The question often is -- back to trust. It is also a question that comes up in Iran at the time of the protests against the election. What do you do? How much support do you show -- even verbal support do you show, because sometimes the people in the street don’t want it to look like they somehow are the tool of the Americans or somehow the Americans are at all involved in this? And so you have to measure constantly what you can do or even what you can say.
PANETTA: But, you know, Charlie, the other way to approach these things is that you have to recognize that our ability to deal with all of these crises that I talked about is not just a military responsibility. It’s also a diplomatic responsibility. I mean, if you’re talking about national security in this country, it isn’t something that is just a tank and a gun and an airplane. It’s got to be diplomacy as well. And it’s that combination of military strength and diplomatic strength that gives us the ability to try to provide direction to the world and try to assist it so that it heads in the right way.
I think with regards to Iran, obviously you’ve got to be -- when people take to the streets, we should try to take every step to try to support their effort, but at the same time we’ve got to analyze each situation to make sure that we do nothing that creates a backlash or that undermines those efforts. That’s not always an easy call but it’s the kind of call we’re going to have to make in the future as well as the past.
ROSE: So what do we say to the reform movement in Iran?
PANETTA: I think the reform movement in Iran is learning one hell of a lot from what’s happened in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and Syria.
ROSE: Even though Iran is not an Arab country, the Arab spring could spread to --
ROSE: See evidence of that?
PANETTA: I think we saw some evidence of that in the last election in Iran -- that there was a movement within Iran that raised those very same concerns that we’re seeing elsewhere. And I think in many ways it’s a matter of time before that kind of change and reform and revolution occurs in Iran as well.
ROSE: It always requires brave people willing to risk their life for their country to get it started, to strike the match. This in fact happened in Tunisia.
PANETTA: Yes. You know, one of the issues we were looking at when Tunisia and Egypt happened is what sparked this? What made this all happen? I mean, why is it taking place now? And there were a number of factors that were involved.
Part of it was the economic condition. Part of it was a youthful population in those countries that didn’t have a lot of hope and a lot of sense that they were going to be able to get ahead. Part of it was social media and the tremendous impact that social media has in these areas. Part of it was just the fact that they had had enough -- that they knew their lives could be better and that they didn’t have to tolerate the kind of lives that they were leading. All of those factors came together to produce the changes that we’ve seen.
And I think in many ways the spark that brings people together to have the bravery and the courage to take on the military, to take on a tyrant, the fact is when people decide that that moment has come, that’s a moment when tremendous change is about to happen. And I think it’s true not only in the Middle East, it’s going to be true in Iran as well.
ROSE: It reminds me of human rights cases, people who have been suffering human rights abuses in whatever prison it might be in whatever part of the world, and somehow they get -- they say the most important thing for me to know was that somebody knew I was there and somebody cared.
PANETTA: That’s right. That’s right.
ROSE: That somebody believed and understood what I was fighting for and the values that I believed in and the reason I was there and they were not going to let me be lost.
PANETTA: Yes. I think that sense that there’s someone standing beside you who shares the same concerns, the same feelings and is prepared to make that kind of sacrifice if necessary -- it’s when those ingredients come together that these changes occur.
ROSE: You’re the son of Italian immigrants.
PANETTA: Yes, I am. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Worked in your father’s restaurant growing up.
ROSE: You went on to become chairman of the House Budget Committee, served in Congress for 16 years, chief of staff to the president of the United States, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and now secretary of defense. You are an American -- I mean, this is an American story, it really is.
PANETTA: Yes, it is. It really is. I often said -- I used to ask my father as immigrants why did you travel all of that distance to come to this country? And I knew -- you know, they came from a poor area in Italy, but they had the comfort of family. Why would you suddenly pick up and travel all that distance, no skills, no language ability, no sense of where they were going. Why would do that? And my father said, the reason we did it is because we really believed we could give our children a better life. And I think that’s the American dream. And in many ways I’ve led that American dream.
I can’t tell you even having been elected to the Congress and walking over to the Capitol and seeing the Capitol lit up at night, it just -- the impact that had on me, you know, knowing that I was there and that in many ways I was fulfilling that dream was just an incredible sense of what America is all about. And the same thing was true in the White House. You suddenly walk into the Oval Office -- it’s the center of power in the world -- and you’re there. You have to always remind yourself that this is part -- the real story of America is the kind of opportunities that we provide people to be able to do what I did.
ROSE: That is the essential American strength.
ROSE: The system, the values, the democracy, the freedom, the sense of what made us.
PANETTA: That’s right.
ROSE: Did they live to see you what?
PANETTA: My mother died -- I was actually in the Army at the time.
ROSE: In intelligence in fact.
PANETTA: That’s right. Intelligence officer in the Army. And my mother died. And then my father, thank God, saw me elected to Congress and he saw me as a member of Congress. And I think it was a tremendous reward for him to be able to see that happen.
ROSE: Thank you for coming.
PANETTA: My pleasure.