The power to hunt down a terrorist like Osama bin Laden may not be enough to protect the United States from the folly of its own spending problems, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a Missoula audience Thursday.
“Our most dangerous national security issue is our inability to deal with the budget,” said the man who’s also directed the Central Intelligence Agency and Office of Management and Budget, and chaired the U.S. House Budget Committee. “We need tax reform and a budget deal that tells us where the U.S. is going. If we cannot fix this, we will not be a strong nation in the future. We will be a nation in decline.”
Panetta, who gave the University of Montana’s annual Jones-Tamm Judicial Lecture, was responding to a question by Washington, D.C., attorney Robert Bennett, who had asked what the U.S. military might look like in the next 10 to 15 years.
Panetta said he sees great promise in fielding a small, agile, high-tech force that can protect America’s place in the world. But he said uncertainty over what kind of budget will be available year-to-year makes it impossible to build strategic plans.
“We have special forces that can take on any enemy in the world,” Panetta said. “We can operate in space and with cyber and unmanned systems. But it won’t be there if we don’t deal with the budget issue.”
Panetta was the 12th in a line of major American figures to present the Jones-Tamm Lecture. Previous speakers include five members of the Supreme Court, Attorney General Eric Holder, and former FBI Director Louis Freeh. Unlike previous lectures, Panetta and Bennett held a discussion on the stage of the Dennison Theatre, rather than have the speaker take questions from the audience.
Panetta said the polarization of both political parties prevents Congress from forming the compromises on taxes and entitlements that past governments could accomplish.
“Both parties avoid taking the risks necessary to make a deal,” Panetta said. “It used to be that governing was good politics – getting things done. I’m not so sure they think that’s good politics anymore. They think confrontation and conflict is good politics.”
Life was different on the administration side, especially when Panetta led the CIA from 2009 to 2011.
“Nothing was more interesting than being CIA director,” he said. “You’ve got some interesting tools to work with.”
The CIA is a “very self-contained operation,” Panetta said, with people who run missions, build technology and command the support of the regular military for actions in addition to analyzing intelligence.
“I don’t have a large bureaucracy to deal with,” Panetta said. “The president tells me what to do and I can get it done.”
Bennett inquired about the CIA’s use of torture in some of those activities.
“Do you believe enhanced interrogation techniques are consistent with American values?” Bennett asked. “Do they work?”
Panetta said some enhanced interrogation techniques “come very close to the line of what’s torture and what’s not torture.” But he added President Barack Obama told the CIA “we’re not going to use those methods anymore,” and he oversaw the closure of some facilities where they were used.
“Intelligence was gathered by those methods that helped piece together the identities of couriers that led to bin Laden,” Panetta said. “I don’t know if that could have been reached by other methods.”
The United States had been hunting Osama bin Laden for 10 years since the al-Qaida leader claimed responsibility for flying passenger jets into New York City’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.
Panetta said one of his first actions on taking the CIA directorship was to refocus the hunt for the terrorist.
Bin Laden was using human couriers to pass messages to his followers. Tracking those couriers helped the CIA locate the fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was hiding. But up until the SEAL team attacked on May 2, 2011, Panetta only had satellite images of an unidentified man pacing a courtyard like a prisoner and counts of laundry on a drying line that matched the size of the terrorist’s family group.
Panetta said he never had a certain identification of the man, but he believed the mounting intelligence pointed to bin Laden. Worried that word of the CIA’s interest in the compound and its occupant might leak, he argued in favor of striking.
“We could have blown the hell out of the place with a B-2 (bomber), but that amount of weaponry would have leveled three or four villages nearby – not good,” he said. “Sending SEAL commandos 150 miles into Pakistan in the middle of a military complex – most of the National Security Council said that was too risky.”
But SEAL teams had been doing similar kinds of raids in Afghanistan “eight or nine times a night,” Panetta said, and he had tremendous confidence they could do the job. When one of their helicopters crashed in the compound, the mission commander told him backup was already underway.
“It amazes me how capable they were,” Panetta said. “It took almost 10 minutes to confirm we had killed bin Laden. Those were the longest minutes of my life. But nobody attacks this country and gets away with it. It was important to send that message.”
Bennett observed the country has had different reactions to the government’s use of torture methods like waterboarding and targeted killing by unmanned drones. Panetta said the U.S. had to make some hard choices in the wake of 9/11.
“We were dealing with a pretty vicious enemy who attacked this country,” he said of al-Qaida. “We didn’t know if there was an atomic weapon placed in Washington, D.C. We didn’t know what the next attack might look like. We had to do a better job protecting the country.”
Panetta said the U.S. could have sent F-16 jets to bomb al-Qaida-controlled areas of Pakistan, but that would kill too many civilians. Sending an invading force into a country where we weren’t at war would cause even more collateral damage. Drone strikes gave the U.S. the best tool to attack terrorist members and leadership wherever they were hiding with the least amount of risk to noncombatants, he said.
“I don’t believe you have to choose between our security and our freedom,” Panetta said. “The real question is how do we protect the country and do it in line with the Constitution?”
The United States now faces its greatest international threats in the Pacific and the Middle East, Panetta said. With North Korea threatening to develop ballistic missiles to deliver its nuclear bombs and China flouting international law on territorial boundaries, he argued it’s increasingly important for us to remain a “Pacific power” ready to confront challenges.
At the same time, Panetta said America must stay involved with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rest of the Middle East unrest.
“I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time, for God’s sake,” Panetta said. “What worries me more is the growing sense of the U.S. withdrawing from the world. We’ve had 10 years of war – I understand that. But the U.S. has to maintain world leadership. No other country in the world can play the role the U.S. does.”