Former Secretary of Defense, CIA Chief Leon Panetta Says Bipartisan Leadership Essential for U.S. Future

Revered former top federal agency official and local Congressman Leon Panetta told a Center for Homeland Defense and Security Executive Leaders Program cohort that bipartisan compromise and strong leadership dedicated to solving our nation’s problems are the key to the future of the U.S.

And he advised the ELP students that they should dedicate themselves to ignoring partisan politics and focus on their jobs.

ELP Director Sara Kay (left) and Leon Panetta (right)

Speaking at a “fireside chat” as part of the ELP cohort 2201 in-residence session on Wednesday, May 25, which featured a series of questions from ELP Director Sara Kay and ELP cohortians, Panetta compared the current hyper-partisan political atmosphere to his days as a Republican Senate aide and a Democrat Congressman from the 1960s to the 1990s when the two sides worked together on solutions to our nation’s problems.

Panetta said the U.S. public must make a choice about what future it wants for itself and choose leaders who are willing to work together despite political differences.

“As I tell my Panetta Institute students, we either govern by leadership or by crisis,” he said. “Too often we govern by crisis. You have to take risks and piss off your own party. You need to have a willingness to get things done. It demands strong leadership. You have to be willing to sit in a room together, work together, and compromise.’’

“We’re so divided right now. We have a choice. The twenty-first century could be an American Renaissance and we can be the world’s leader in very dangerous times, or we can be an America in decline, full of hatred and unwilling to listen to each other, and we can go the way of other empires in history.” 

Panetta said both parties need to work together for the good of the country.  

“If we can’t get Republicans and Democrats to work together and they spend time fighting each other, it sends a message to the country and there’s a lot of frustration,” he said. “In both parties, the power centers have moved to the extremes, partly due to redistricting and creating safe seats. The way you get things done in Washington is in the center, and we’re beginning to lose the center. We’re seeing the same kind of division in the country, but I don’t believe that’s where the American people are.” 

Leon Panetta speaks to the ELP cohort, May 25, 2022

Panetta also held social media responsible for the rise in disinformation and polarization, noting the proliferation of information being disseminated on the various platforms without any controls, while adding he doesn’t pay attention to social media. He said social media disinformation reinforces people’s views on the extremes, causing hate and anger and frustration to flourish.

“Social media is being used by those who want to divide us,” Panetta said.

“What’s the answer to that? There are no easy answers. We have to go back to leadership. Leaders who want to tell lies undermine democracy. It takes a leader who can convey a message to the American people. If it’s cloaked in Republican or Democrat language it won’t work. Demagogues can get their message out because people listen to the loudest person in the room. These are tough problems.” Panetta praised former Presidents Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton for their ability to understand and speak to the issues of concern to the average American, which he described as an essential aspect of effective leadership.

Meanwhile, Panetta said there is still reason for optimism and pointed to those in the ELP cohort and their colleagues working to protect the U.S., calling them and their work crucial to protecting the homeland. And he said he still has confidence in the prospects for compromise.

“This country has been through hell,” he said, noting the wars and other disasters the U.S. has handled, “and has always found a way. It’s important to have a vision for what America can be. If you’re willing to kick ass you can solve problems, but you have to kick ass. If people keep focused on the mission we can get things done. This is an innovative country, we can solve problems. We need to change the attitude that everything is going to hell. It’s like a losing football team that needs to be convinced it can win.”

Harkening back to his earliest days in politics, Panetta noted that he worked for California Sen. Thomas Kuchel, the moderate Minority Whip who worked closely with Democrats when it came to big issues, and then as a Democrat Congressman from the Central Coast first elected in 1976 and re-elected without substantial opposition eight times. He said he worked with the other party to pass social security, immigration, and tax reform, and on budget and defense issues.  

“The reality is we were governing,” he said. “Of course we had differences. But you have to be willing to work together and compromise. That’s what you’re elected to do, not just get re-elected.   

“I’ve seen Washington at its best and at its worst. In the good days, we were willing to listen to the other side and recognize the facts of the situation and compromise. That’s what democracy is all about.”  

Panetta said Congress represents a “cross-section” of America, including honest and dishonest, and legislators must be willing to work together with everyone. He noted that his youngest son, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel, who now represents the Central Coast.  

Leon Panetta at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School

Also during the fireside chat, Panetta reminisced about his time as former Pres. Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget director and eventually White House chief of staff, as well as his time as former Pres. Obama’s Secretary of Defense and CIA director, when he oversaw what he called the “very risky” Navy Seals raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in a Pakistani compound in 2011.  

Panetta noted that about half the National Security Council said the raid was too risky, including some who remembered the failed Iran hostages rescue attempt during the Carter Administration. But he said the Bin Laden location intelligence was the best since Tora Bora, and he had faith in the experienced Navy Seals.  

Calling the raid that ended up killing Bin Laden a “great moment because both the military and intelligence worked together,” Panetta said it was “the kind of stuff counterterrorism is all about.”  

During his time at the helm of key government agencies, Panetta said it was important to keep staff organized and focused on the task at hand while also showing unwavering support for them. Honesty, he said, is the most important attribute in leadership.  

“Don’t pretend you’re someone you’re not,” he said. “Be honest about the challenges we’re facing. We need to stay focused on the threats and not the political BS. That will help you all do a very tough job, protecting the American people at a time when there are a lot of dangers.”  

Panetta praised the Naval Postgraduate School for providing a home for CHDS and its educational programs aimed at homeland security professionals who are so essential to protecting the U.S.  

“NPS is in a good position to host this (educational institution),” he said. “You’re all very important to our ability to secure our nation.”

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment | hissvora@nps.edu, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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