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

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

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

CHUCK TODD:
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.

LEON PANETTA:
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.

CHUCK TODD:
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?

LEON PANETTA:
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.

CHUCK TODD:
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.?

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

CHUCK TODD:
But who makes the calls?

LEON PANETTA:
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.

CHUCK TODD:
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?

LEON PANETTA:
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.

CHUCK TODD:
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.

LEON PANETTA:
Yeah -

CHUCK TODD:
- 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?

LEON PANETTA:
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 -

(OVERTALK)

LEON PANETTA:
-We limited the, the collateral damage.

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

LEON PANETTA:
Well, and that's -

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

LEON PANETTA:
Yeah, I think -

CHUCK TODD:
Congress should step in?

LEON PANETTA:
I think the way to do it, frankly, is that - you know, in Title 10 operations - the so-called Title 10 operations.

CHUCK TODD:
Title 10 -

(OVERTALK)

LEON PANETTA:
- Which are the military operations. I think a lot more of this can be put under Title 10. And that on Title 50, we ought to - we always ought to have that capability to use a covert effort if we have to

CHUCK TODD:
But very limited?

LEON PANETTA:
But I yeah, I would limit that. And I would move more towards -

CHUCK TODD:
And by moving it under military, there's more oversight at the Pentagon? Essentially, as your job - you should be in charge of this as secretary of defense more so than the C.I.A., head of the C.I.A.?

LEON PANETTA:
I think the advantage to it is that it becomes much more transparent, in terms of what we're doing.

CHUCK TODD:
Let me ask you about the balance between the military - the so-called, what Eisenhower called the 'military-industrial complex,' this balance of power between civilian and military control. And we talked about the economy and how it's so dependent suddenly on the defense industry. How do you know if we have the right balance? How do you know when it's out of whack, and is it out of whack?

LEON PANETTA:
I think it's very important to maintain strong civilian leadership of the Pentagon. And, you know, that's -

CHUCK TODD:
What's the check? How do you know when it's there? And how do you know - how do you know when it's moved too far the other way?

LEON PANETTA:
I think you have to, you have to look at whether or not, you know, there really is a team effort here, or whether you've developed two different areas at the Pentagon in which the military is operating on their track and the civilian employees there are operating on their track. That's happened in the past. And that's dangerous.

What you have to do is look for whether or not there really is a team effort going on there, in which the military and civilian workforce are coming together to determine what the policies ought to be and what the strategy ought to be. When that's happening - and I've had the advantage of that happening during the time I've been Secretary - that's the way it ought to work.

CHUCK TODD:
As a former White House chief of staff, I've always heard rumors that, even when you were at C.I.A., when Rahm was running through something as chief of staff, you might have had some advice for him? Have you given any - what's your advice to Denis McDonough, the new White House chief of staff, in his second term. You've had to deal with sort of a tumultuous Republican Congress when you were chief of staff for Bill Clinton.

LEON PANETTA:
Yeah, no, look - most important thing is obviously to maintain the trust of your boss. You can't be a good chief of staff unless you got the trust of your boss. And that means more than just, you know, taking directions from him. You've gotta be able to tell him truthfully what's going on, what mistakes he's making, what he should be doing. It's gotta be a trustful relationship. That's important.

CHUCK TODD:
You think Denis has that?

LEON PANETTA:
I think he does.

CHUCK TODD:
Being able to tell the president, 'No, bad idea.'

LEON PANETTA:
No, I think he does. I really do.

CHUCK TODD:
And what's your advice to Denis on how to deal with Congress?

LEON PANETTA:
I think you gotta do a lot of outreach to Congress. I, you know, I had Hill experience when I was chief of staff. And that gave me an advantage. And I think it's important that you - you've gotta reach out to Congress. They've gotta know you. They've gotta be able to trust you, too; that as chief of staff, you're gonna be willing to take their messages and convey them to the president. That's the kind of relationship he's gonna have to develop.

CHUCK TODD:
This wouldn't be Meet The Press if we didn't go back and see something that you said way back when. And in 1989, you came on Meet The Press and talked about the political logjam, ten years of problems with the budget. 'It's the problem in this town right now, they can't seem to come together.' You were lamenting this issue that we say - is it really worse today? Or do we just think it's worse today?

LEON PANETTA:
You know, I've been in and out of Washington -

CHUCK TODD:
'Cause you thought it was bad in 1989.

LEON PANETTA:
I've been in and out of Washington over 40 years. And I've seen a lot of Washington. And you know, it's always been political. It's always been -

CHUCK TODD:
Let me play the bite. All right, let's see what you had to say in 1989.

VIDEO

PANETTA: If you want to actually achieve strong deficit reduction in this country, we have known for the last eight years that you've got to make tough choices - on defense, on entitlements and on taxes. The problem we've had in this town for the last 10 years now is a political log-jam - one party saying you can't cut defense and you can't raise taxes, and the other saying you can't Touch entitlements. Until both sides are willing to put everything on the table and make those tough choices, we're going to continue to play games. That's the problem in this town right now.

CHUCK TODD:
Well, you've held up pretty well.

LEON PANETTA:
That a very thoughtful guy. I think - (LAUGH) I'm with him.

CHUCK TODD:
This is 1989. We had a Republican president. We had a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate.

LEON PANETTA:
Same issues.

CHUCK TODD:
There's your political logjam. This time - we still get -

LEON PANETTA:
Exactly.

CHUCK TODD:
And so nothing changes? Or maybe - or should we actually feel more optimistic?

LEON PANETTA:
No, I'll tell you. I mean, the difference was that ultimately, at that time, the leadership on both Democratic and Republican sides came together to develop some very important budget agreements that ultimately balanced the budget and created a surplus. What has to happen is, we've gotta go back to that same dynamic where the leadership is willing to say to the members, 'You have got to sit down in a room and develop the kind of comprehensive package to resolve this fiscal crisis.'

CHUCK TODD:
What's your advice to the president? What should he do more of? You know, he gets a little defensive when people criticize, 'Hey, you're not reaching out.' He says, 'I've reached out a lot. They're not reaching out to me.' What would you tell him to do?

LEON PANETTA:
He has got to continue to speak to the American people about the importance of developing the kind of package that will resolve this fiscal crisis. It is-

CHUCK TODD:
Don't reach out to Congress as much? Or is it they're slapping his hand away too much?

LEON PANETTA:
You always - no, no, you gotta continue to talk to the Congress. You always have to work with them as closely as you can. But frankly, they need to feel the pressure from the American people.

CHUCK TODD:
You know, so I'm thumbing through Esquire Magazine. And you're being featured in a profile. And one thing I did not know about you. We know this about Rahm Emanuel. We don't know about - apparently, you have a hard time speaking without cursing sometimes. That you have this reputation. Well, you've made it, you made it through all this. We haven't - we had the seven second delay. We had it ready. This is a legacy that your staff knows about?

LEON PANETTA:
Oh yeah, very well. As a matter of fact, James Gandolfini, who plays me in this movie -

CHUCK TODD:
So they got it right is what you're saying? You got -

LEON PANETTA:
They got that right.

CHUCK TODD:
Tony Soprano and Leon Panetta?

LEON PANETTA:
That's right.

CHUCK TODD:

They got that -

LEON PANETTA:
They got that- they got that part of it very right.

CHUCK TODD:
Did he call you?

LEON PANETTA:
He wrote me and then I talked to him. And he said, you know, he said, 'Gee, I was a little concerned that maybe I was swearing too much.' And I said, 'No, that was the one part you got right.'

CHUCK TODD:
The one thing you have is you have more hair.

LEON PANETTA:
That's true.

CHUCK TODD:
Anyway, Leon Panetta, you're from one of the most beautiful parts of this country, Monterey. Enjoy this - we expect you in another administration to take yet another cabinet position, at some point. I'm sure this is not the last of Leon Panetta in Washington -

LEON PANETTA:
Well, it'll be good to go home. I look forward to it.

CHUCK TODD:
Thank you, sir.

LEON PANETTA:
Thanks.

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END OF TRANSCRIPT