Leon Panetta Discusses Morality of U.S. Drone Program on MEET THE PRESS

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In this week's "Meet the Press" PRESS Pass conversation, Chuck Todd sat down with outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to hear more on his 40 year career including what advice he would give incoming White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on how to handle his new job. In the interview, Panetta admitted that, as a Catholic, he grappled with the fact that he was making life and death decisions as head of the CIA, authorizing drone strikes against alleged terrorists.

"It doesn't come lightly," Panetta said. "You've gotta really think about it."

Panetta, who will retire once his successor is confirmed, told Todd he believes it would be beneficial to have more oversight and transparency in the country's drone program. Although, he argues that they "always ought to have the capability to use a covert effort if we have to."

Panetta's post as the country's top military leader is just the most recent in a long line of high-profile positions for Leon Panetta over his 40-plus year career in public service. He's been House budget committee chairman, White House chief of staff, White House Budget Director and CIA director.

When asked to reflect on his long career, Panetta smiled and said, "It's been a hell of a ride."

NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd filled in for Moderator David Gregory.

A full transcript is below and embeddable video is online here!

PRESS Pass: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

I'm Chuck Todd in for David Gregory and this is PRESS Pass, your all-access pass to the extra Meet The Press conversation. We just heard from Leon Panetta and Martin Dempsey on Meet The Press. Well, now I'm joined again by Leon Panetta. He's a man who's had just about every powerful position in Washington, D.C. - other than president of the United States. And as he leaves government service, we thought we would get his personal reflections on this extraordinary career spanning 40 years. Secretary Panetta, let me go through this resume. Let's see, first lieutenant in the Army. Do you want me to say the years or not? In the mid-'60s. (LAUGHTER) The first head of the Nixon administration's Office of Civil Rights. I even brought you a clip to show you on the day that you were unceremoniously asked to leave, perhaps. We have an old little photo of you there. Then you went and ran for Congress, served in Congress for over a decade. Bill Clinton's first budget director, his chief of staff. You left for a while. They almost got you to run for governor - I think of California. Then C.I.A. director and then secretary of defense. It is you, Jim Baker, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney. You guys are on this Mount Rushmore of guys that have had every office other than the presidency.

Yeah, it's been a hell of a ride. I really enjoyed it. In many ways, you know, it's kind of- as the son of Italian immigrants- I've kind of lived the American dream, which is - I've gotten a lot of opportunities to serve the country. And I've been able to do some great things. And you know, in the end, I used to ask my father why as an immigrant he came to the United States. He said, 'Because we wanted to make sure our children had a better life.' I hope that that's my legacy, that in some way in all those jobs, I gave our children a better life.

I want to ask you a little bit about all of it. But I want to start with - we've now had back-to-back secretaries of defense who did a stint as head of the C.I.A. How important was that stint? Having that experience at the C.I.A., how does - how are future secretary of defenses, what are they missing by not knowing how the C.I.A. works?

Well, it gave me - there's no question it gave both Bob Gates and I - I think, a tremendous advantage. Because when you're working in the intelligence side, and you're looking at the threats, and you're looking at who's Out There that, you know, is a danger to the United States - and the whole intelligence process that's involved in gathering that kind of information. That becomes very important when you go to Defense, because everything you do at Defense depends on good intelligence. And there, you not only get the intelligence, but you then have to do the operational stuff to make sure we're protecting the country. So having that combined experience, I thought was very helpful to me as secretary of defense.

You know, you've also been in this unique position, the drone program, the expansion of the drone program. You ran it, in some form, the operational aspect of it at the C.I.A. You run actually less - are you in charge of less of the drone operation at the Defense Department than at the C.I.A.?

Well, you know, not really. I mean, we're the ones who supply the C.I.A. with the -

But who makes the calls?

It depends on the operations. I mean I - the best thing I've seen happen in the four years that I've been back here is we really have a very good military and intelligence partnership now, with regards to going after al-Qaeda. And there are operations that we've developed in which, you know, we develop the targets, and then we make the decision who's best able to be able to go after those targets. And it's a very synchronized, good operation, that gives us the best of both the military and the intelligence.

This issue, though, of the drones. It's something - we don't have a big debate about it in the United States. It is the new cover of TIME magazine. But some - outgoing General McChrystal, retired general now, former commander in Afghanistan, here's what he said about drones, during this book tour: 'What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world, the resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes. Much greater than the average American appreciates, they are hated on a visceral level even by people who have never seen one or seen the effects of one.' This is, have we opened a Pandora's box that we may regret in 20 years?

Well, you know, as always, I think the United States has to always pay attention to these issues and make sure that, you know, that we're applying the right standards, abiding by the laws of this country. But in the end, also, using what we have to use against the enemies of the United States. I mean, after all, in 9/11, al-Qaeda attacked us, in a brutal way that killed, you know, 3,000 innocent people in our Trade Center and killed almost 200 people at the Pentagon - as well as those in Pennsylvania. It was a deliberate act of terrorism. We went to war. And when you go to war and you have an enemy out there, you've gotta use everything you can to make sure you go after that enemy. And that's what we did. And the fact is we had very precise, effective operations to go right at al-Qaeda's leadership. And by weakening them and by significantly impacting them, especially with the Bin Laden raid, the fact is we are safer today from the 9/11-type attack.

There seems to be, though, some concern - even the president did an interview with Mark Bowden in his new book "The Finish" on drones. And he said, 'There's a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems.' It's the morality question.

Yeah -

- And it, you know, do you sit there and say - is there a conversation that's had when you're making this decision? Is this - is this moral?

You know, as a Catholic, I remember when I first became director of the C.I.A., and realized that I was making life-and-death decisions - with regards to our operations. It doesn't come lightly. You've gotta be - you've gotta really think about it. You gotta make sure that we really are focused on somebody who is, you know, who is a direct threat to the United States - someone who intends to attack the United States and hurt - hurt our people. And you've gotta be able to go through the process. And it was an intricate process, not only of establishing the targets, but going through the legal requirements to ensure that we were doing this carefully. And then, also, then the operational side to make sure that we -


-We limited the, the collateral damage.

We only can take your word for it. You know, the transparency on this is very limited.

Well, and that's -

And there - does that need to change? There needs to be more oversight?

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