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Panetta: 'My Mission Has Always Been To Keep The Country Safe'

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrives in London on Jan. 17. Panetta is stepping down as defense secretary as soon as the Senate confirms his successor. (AP)

For more than 40 years, Leon Panetta has split his life on two coasts: his home in California and his work in Washington, D.C. It's a career that included 16 years in Congress, stints as White House chief of staff for President Clinton, and as the head of the CIA and the Pentagon under President Obama.

As Panetta prepares to leave his job as defense secretary, he sat down with Rachel Martin, host of Weekend Edition Sunday, to talk about his years in Washington and serving in the Obama administration.

During the past two years at the Pentagon, Panetta has overseen the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan and a massive budget battle. If Congress doesn't reach a deficit deal, the Pentagon could be forced to cut close to $50 billion this year.

It's the kind of battle Panetta has fought before, having participated in almost every major summit on budget issues since the Reagan administration. But he says there's been a big change since then.

"One of the differences is that the leadership was very strong about demanding that both sides sit down and not come out of a room until they had found a compromise," Panetta says.

Heading The CIA

Budget issues were the kinds of problems that Panetta dealt with for a good part of his political career, but when Obama asked him to head the CIA, the issues he would grapple with would be much different.

Panetta was home in California when he got the call from the White House chief of staff; he was initially skeptical of taking the job.

"I said you've got to be out of your mind," Panetta says.

But Panetta says Obama thought he could help restore trust in the CIA, a daunting task, as trust in the agency had eroded, he says, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"In many ways, I'm a sucker for a challenge," he says.

As head of the CIA, Panetta oversaw the U.S. drone campaign against al-Qaida. When the intelligence identified the location of a particular target, Panetta often had to decide whether to fire.

"As a Catholic, suddenly realizing I had the responsibility of saying, 'We're going to go after somebody,' it was something I did not take lightly," he says. "It's a lot of responsibility."

Panetta justifies the use of drones as a necessary tool to "keep the country safe," which he says was his mission both as head of the CIA and as defense secretary.

"I felt they were legitimate if we followed the law, and did what we had to do under our law, to make sure that we were being true to the American people with regard to our responsibility," he says.

There is wide uncertainty about how many civilians have been killed in U.S. drone strikes. One estimate from the New America Foundation says around 300 civilians were killed in Pakistan from 2004 to the beginning of this year.

There is at least one case where U.S. officials, including Panetta, knew that a woman was present at a possible strike site, and the attack was ordered anyway. A U.S. official told NPR a strike with non-combatants in the area would only happen in "exceptional circumstances against very high-level terrorists."

Changing The Pentagon

At the CIA, Panetta saw close up how the government exercises power in the name of national security. He saw the same thing at the Pentagon, but as defense secretary he got to use his own power to change the institution.

In January, Panetta announced an end to a 1994 policy that banned women from serving in combat. Panetta says, for him, the issue was personal.

"I'm the son of immigrants, and in many ways I've lived the American dream," he says. "It is about giving everybody the opportunity to succeed. There's no guarantees, but everybody ought to have a chance."

After Panetta's decision, there has been concern from some in the military of standards, in particular the idea that the standards of some jobs might have to be lowered to accommodate women. He says it is simply a chance for the military to re-evaluate its standards and make improvements.

"Every profession that's gone through this ... have had to look at their standards and really determine 'are these really the standards that we need in order to have a good fireman [or] good policeman,'" he says. "I think the military is going to have to go through the same process."

A Californian At Heart

With every job he's had in Washington, Panetta has made it a priority to make it home to Monterey, Calif., as often as he can to see his family. The reason this was so important to him, he says, is that he feels it's good for those who work in Washington to get out of the city.

"The problem with Washington is that you can become very confined; you lose your perspective," he says. "Throughout my career, I've always thought it was important to have a chance to be just another citizen, because that ... energizes you to be able to come back and make the kind of decisions you have to make."

On the walls of Panetta's office, a long row of clocks show the time in Kabul, Baghdad and Washington. But the watch Panetta wears on his wrist is set three hours behind — California time.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Washington is a town where people get reputations pretty quickly - and they stick. For most of his career, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been known as, well, his staff calls it plainspoken. Case in point, here's Panetta in 2011 talking in Baghdad about the Iraqi government.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: He wants to stay, don't they want us to stay, but, dammit, make a decision.

MARTIN: And here he is reflecting on his time as director of the CIA:

PANETTA: One of the proudest moments I've had is the ability to put together the plan go after bin Laden and to get that son of a (beep).

MARTIN: He knows when to throw a good verbal punch, but at the same time, Panetta laughs a lot and loves a good pun. Here he is last month at the White House announcing his department from the Pentagon and from Washington.

PANETTA: The time has come for more to return to my wife Sylvia and my walnut farm, dealing with different sent of nuts.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: For more than 40 years, Leon Panetta has split his life on two coasts: his home in California and his work in Washington. It's a career that's included 16 years in Congress. He served as White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, and most recently he was head of the CIA and the Pentagon. Panetta has said he will remain as secretary of defense until his successor is confirmed. The president has tapped Republican Chuck Hagel, but the Senate has yet to confirm him. So, as Panetta prepares to leave Washington, he sat down with us for his first official exit interview. Good morning. During the past two years, at the Pentagon, he has overseen the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan and a massive budget battle. If Congress doesn't reach a deficit deal, the Pentagon could be forced to cut close to $50 billion this year. It's the kind of battle Panetta has fought before.

PANETTA: I participated in almost every major summit on budget issues, beginning in the Reagan administration.

MARTIN: But he says there has been a big change since then.

PANETTA: One of the differences I that the leadership was very strong about demanding that both sides sit down and really not come out of a room until they had found a compromise.

MARTIN: Is this a problem? Are people just not sitting in the same room and battling this out? Does it just get down to that?

PANETTA: Well, it's, you know, in some ways, I mean, the other aspect of this is that for us governing was good politics. If you could make the tough choices, even though they were tough, ultimately if you found solutions, it was good politics. It was good for Democrats. It was good for Republicans. It was good for Republican presidents who happened to be in office at the time. Today, I'm not sure that people really think that governing is good politics. I think they think confrontation and conflict in many ways serves them politically better than trying to negotiate a resolution.

MARTIN: Do you think that's on both sides or is that...

PANETTA: No, I think that's part of the problem, is that, you know, it takes two sides to do that. Look, everybody knows when you're dealing with a budget deficit of this size, you can't avoid putting everything on table. You got to put entitlements on the table. You got to put discretionary spending on the table. And you have to put revenues on the table.

MARTIN: Those were the kinds of problems Leon Panetta dealt with for a good part of his political career - policy and budgets. But when President Obama asked him to head the CIA, the issues Panetta would grapple with would be much different. He was back home in California when he got the call from the White House chief of staff.

PANETTA: And I said you got to be out of your mind. I said, you know, I'd done most of my life on budget issues. And he said, no, no, the president's serious. He wants to talk to you. And so a few days later I got the call from the president. It was - and he said the reason I'm talking to you is because I think that you have the credibility and the integrity to be able to restore trust in the CIA.

MARTIN: Who didn't trust whom when you say restore trust?

PANETTA: I think trust between the CIA and the Congress, trust between the CIA and the American people. I think a lot of that had been damaged, obviously, because of various challenges that had occurred since 9/11. But I viewed it, I mean, in many ways I'm a sucker for a challenge.

MARTIN: This is an agency with its own history, its own culture. Did you have a hard time walking in that door and earning the respect and trust of the people who've worked there for decades?

PANETTA: Well, you know, you can't simply walk into places like this that have professionals, dedicated individuals, who know their stuff and basically then try to tell them what to do or kick them in the rear end or get rid of people. My approach has been basically to walk in and kind of put my trust in them, to see how they do perform their job. And then based on that and working with them, kind of begin to build a relationship, a team kind of mentality in which we're all working together.

MARTIN: Did you ever get burned, if part of learning a new complicated agency is putting a lot of trust in people?

PANETTA: Yeah, sure, because you find sometimes that there are people that frankly you can't trust, that are doing their own thing or are trying to get behind your back. But, you know, ultimately, you find out that that's happened and you come down very hard on those that, you know, that cross you in that way and that don't want to engage in a relationship of trust.

MARTIN: As head of the CIA, Panetta oversaw the U.S. drone campaign against al-Qaida. When the intelligence identified the location of a target, Panetta often had to decide whether to fire.

PANETTA: As a Catholic, suddenly realizing that I had a responsibility of saying we're going to have to somebody was something I did not take lightly. It's a heavy responsibility. But at the same time, there's a flag behind the desk at the CIA, the director's, that is a flag that was pulled out of the Twin Towers and hangs there as kind of a, something to remind everybody who sits in that chair about what the mission is. My mission, whether it's at CIA or here, is to keep the country safe. And I thought the ability to use these kinds of tools and operations to go after those who would attack our country, I felt they were legitimate if we followed the law and did what we had to do under our law to make sure that we were being true to the American people with regards to our responsibility.

MARTIN: How did the civilian deaths and the risk of civilian deaths weigh on your decision-making process?

PANETTA: Frankly, we made very clear that if there were any women or children that were involved we would not take the shot. I mean, that became a rule that we abided by.

MARTIN: If there were women or children on sites...

PANETTA: That's right.

MARTIN: ...a strike was called off.

PANETTA: That's right.

MARTIN: There is a lot of uncertainty about how many civilians have been killed in U.S. drone strikes. One estimate from the New America Foundation says that from 2004 to the beginning of this year, around 300 civilians have been killed in Pakistan. And there is at least one case where U.S. officials, including Panetta, knew that a woman was present at a possible strike site and the attack was ordered anyway. The U.S. official told NPR that a strike with noncombatants in the area would only happen in, quote, "exceptional circumstances against very high-level terrorists." At the CIA, Panetta saw close up how the government exercises power in the name of national security. Same thing at the Pentagon. But in this job, he got to use his own power to change the institution itself. Last month, Panetta announced an end to a 1994 policy that banned women from serving in combat. Panetta says, for him, the issue was personal.

PANETTA: Look, I'm the son of immigrants, and in many ways, I've lived the American dream. And so it's built into my bones that it is about giving everybody the opportunity to succeed. There's no guarantees here, but everybody ought to have a chance to try to do what they want to do. I saw women out there performing in an outstanding fashion, being a very important part of the mission that we had. And every time I saw that, and then I knew that we had a barrier that said there were some areas where they could not participate, it bothered me. Because I said, you know, if they're doing this job and if I can see that they can do the job, then why do we have a barrier that says we're not even going to give them a chance?

MARTIN: The question of standards, of course, has been brought up though in the wake of this decision. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey said this gives us a chance to reevaluate the standards. Some have said will that mean lowering standards? In a recent interview, the head of the Marine Corps, the Marine Commandant Jim Amos, came out and said, well, there might be some positions that we keep closed to women. The Marine Corps isn't lowering its standards. Are you OK with that?

PANETTA: My sense is that every profession that's gone through this, particularly firefighters, police and others, have had to look at their standards and really determine are these really the standards that we need in order to have a good fireman, to have a good policeman? And I think the military's going to have to go through the same process. But the end result is that we are going to have to have high standards here.

MARTIN: But it'll be OK with you if some of the services come back and say these jobs we're not going to let women in.

PANETTA: You know, I think getting rid of the barrier makes it a little tougher for them to come back and ask for exceptions. But if they can make a case, then I think it's up to a future secretary and a future chairman to see whether or not they really want to do that. I don't think it's going to be that easy to do, if you want to know the truth.

MARTIN: You have been very vocal about the fact that you are a Californian, not a Washingtonian. With every job you've had in Washington, you've made it a prerequisite that you're going to fly home to Monterey on the weekends to see your family, and sometimes to great taxpayer expense. I mean, we have to say this costs a lot of money to fly the secretary of defense around - hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why has this been so important for you?

PANETTA: I think it's important to get out of Washington. The problem with Washington is that you can become very confined. You lose your perspective. And throughout my career, I've always thought it was important to get a chance just to be just another citizen, because that, in a very important way, energizes you to be able to come back and make the kind of decisions you have to make.

MARTIN: A long row of clocks hangs on one of his office walls, showing the time in Kabul, Baghdad and Washington. But the watch Panetta wears on his wrist is set three hours behind - California time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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