Panetta: Leadership is lacking in America

PITTSBURGH – America is at a crossroads, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta believes, and based on recent events, he fears its leaders are choosing the wrong path.

“I think we can go one of two paths,” Panetta said Wednesday, addressing oil and gas industry professionals from around the nation as the lunch keynote speaker at the DUG East conference in Pittsburgh. “I believe deeply we could have an America in renaissance – a strong America in the 21st century. … We could also have an America in decline, that operates by crisis after crisis after crisis. …

“If leadership is not there, make no mistake, we will govern by crisis. That’s what we do in America today,” he said. “You can govern that way. The price is you lose the trust of the American people, and in a democracy, trust is everything.”

President Barack Obama nominated Panetta to the director’s post at the CIA in 2009, and two years later tapped the former congressman, budget adviser and White House chief of staff to lead the Department of Defense, a job he held until last February. He oversaw the 2011 mission that resulted in the death of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, played a key role in implementing the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and announced just before retiring that women would no longer be barred from serving in combat roles.

The son of Italian immigrants, Panetta said his parents embodied the American dream – making a better life for their children and grandchildren through hard work. But, he stressed, the American dream is just that – a dream – unless people are willing to fight for it.

Panetta said during his 16 years representing California in Congress from 1977-93, lawmakers seemed to be able to put their political differences aside to find middle ground on issues vital to the nation. Not so when it comes to today’s politicians, he said.

“It’s probably the ugliest I’ve seen in the 50 years I’ve been in public life, the gridlock,” Panetta said. “Today, I’m not sure that either party believes that governing represents good politics. … To a large extent, they’ve kind of given up on governing.”

Panetta said leadership has risen to the occasion throughout America’s history, and he believes it will again, because the spirit of the American dream rests not in dysfunctional Washington, but in the nation’s people.

“If it doesn’t change from the top down, it will change from the bottom up, because America will say enough is enough,” Panetta said. “We will elect new people.”

The highlight of Panetta’s tenure as head of the CIA was directing the May 2011 raid by Navy SEALs that resulted in the death of bin Laden. Frustrated for years in their search for America’s most wanted man, U.S. intelligence officials finally got a break when they identified a man believed to be a courier for bin Laden and tracked him to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

There were plenty of signs that pointed to it being the place, Panetta said, things like the high level of security at the compound, and the fact that people there were so cautious they drove 90 miles away just to make a phone call. But there were no guarantees.

“We never had 100-percent … that bin Laden was there. … In my mind, it was about 80 percent,” Panetta said.

When the time came to make a decision, the National Security Council was hesitant. Some – perhaps, Panetta speculates, recalling President Jimmy Carter’s botched rescue attempt during the Iranian hostage crisis three decades earlier – were hesitant to risk American lives in what could have been just another dead end.

Before Obama gave the final go-ahead, Panetta boiled it down to a simple test: Would the average American, knowing what he did, be convinced strongly enough to move forward?

Panetta believed they would.

“These are risky decisions,” he said. “These are tough decisions. But that’s what it takes to govern this country.”

As he addressed the crowd of energy industry professionals and experts, Panetta acknowledged he knows comparatively little about the ins and outs of the oil and gas industry. But, he said, he knows full well what their work means to America.

“As (former) secretary of defense, I can tell you how dependent the security of our country is on your industry,” he said. “The Department of Defense is the single-largest energy user in the nation.”