Former CIA Director warns government paralysis threatens national security

Apr 24, 2014

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta on stage of Dennison Theater in Missoula
Credit Sally Mauk

In sometimes salty language, the former head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, covered everything from torture to budget deficits in a wide-ranging talk Thursday at the University of Montana. Besides heading the CIA, Panetta also served as Secretary of Defense, and as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.     

Panetta spoke to a riveted audience at the annual Jones/Tamm law school lecture. He was questioned for about 40 minutes by his friend and famous trial attorney Robert Bennett about domestic and foreign policy.

Panetta also served in Congress as a representative from California from 1977 to 1993 - a time he says when Congress and the Administration were able to work together. He had harsh words for the current Congressional stalemates.

"I just deeply feel that the purpose of people going back to Washington is to get something done and not just sit on their ass and do nothing,"  Panetta said.

Panetta convinced President Obama to take the risk of going after Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, which he said was the top priority when he took over the CIA. He says the 10 minutes it took to positively identify the dead Bin Laden was the longest 10 minutes of his life.
      Panetta says both he and President Obama agreed that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques should be discontinued, but he also says those techniques helped find Bin Laden. He also defended the use of drones as a better option than sending troops, or indiscriminately bombing an area to take out Al Qaeda leaders.

"The fundamental responsibility of the president of the United States, and of the director of the CIA and of the Secretary of Defense, is to protect this country," said Panetta. "And I don't believe that in the United States you have to choose between our security and our freedom - I think you can do both."

Acknowledging the country is tired of war, Panetta cautions against the U.S. withdrawing from its world leadership role. He says cyber-attacks pose the greatest security threat for the future -  and the inability of both the President and Congress to deal with the country's growing deficit.

"I don't give a damn what your priority is," said Panetta. "Whatever your priority is - if we don't have the resources to invest in those priorities, we will not be a strong America in the future - we'll be a nation in decline."

At the end of his talk, attorney Robert Bennett described Panetta as a "national treasure" - and Panetta got a standing ovation from the packed crowd.