The Jan. 23, Sentinel Editorial:
If this is the last public service job Leon Panetta decides to hold, then he deserves the thanks of the entire country.
For Monterey native Panetta, who represented Santa Cruz County in Congress for six terms, and later served as White House budget director and President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, his latest tenure in government service is ending.
Asked by President Barack Obama to leave his comfortable life at home in the Carmel Valley and serving on a variety of boards, both corporate and public interest, Panetta said yes to coming back to Washington D.C. as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
When Obama asked Panetta to take over from Robert Gates as the nation’s secretary of defense, Panetta stayed on.
Now, after four years of testifying before Congress, traveling around the world and presiding over overhauls at CIA and staving off draconian military budget cuts, Panetta, 74, is ready to return home.
He completed his final overseas journey as defense secretary last weekend. His 19 months as chief of the world’s most powerful military were eventful, as he fought to protect the defense budget from billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts he warned would be akin to hacking with a “meat ax.” He also oversaw the final pullout of U.S. forces from Iraq, the U.S. participation in the NATO campaign to bring down Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan.
For all that Panetta has accomplished in his rich and varied governmental career, though, he may go down in history for his role in tracking down Osama bin Laden.
You might recall that shortly after bin Laden was killed by a Navy SEALS team, Panetta was given a standing ovation by the House of Representatives as he arrived to give a closed-door briefing on the operation. Typically, he made a joke about it, saying people were applauding only because he had once been one of them. But news accounts later revealed how Panetta was briefed after taking over as CIA chief on the search for bin Laden — details that dovetail nicely with the new film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” where James Gandolfini plays the CIA director getting the briefing.
In February 2011, Panetta decided it was time to begin planning the operation; later he began holding daily meetings about the hunt — on April 19, 2011 he informed the president that the CIA believed it had located bin Laden. Panetta was by the president’s side on May 2, 2011, when the assault on the Abbottabad, Pakistan compound took place and the news finally came back that bin Laden had been found and killed.
Through it all, Panetta remained a man who enjoys people, an earthy and wise veteran of countless intrigues and political battles who likes the rough and tumble of negotiations and loves a good joke. A man of the people who loves the Central Coast, especially the Monterey Peninsula.
Panetta remains on the job. This week, he told reporters the Obama administration will continue to use drone strikes as part of its counter-terrorism efforts, despite controversy over their use, and that the operations will move to North Africa after the Algerian attack by Islamic militants.
But his time is winding down. Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel is Obama’s choice to replace him, though Hagel’s positions on Israel and the U.S. role in the Middle East have put him at odds with his own party prior to confirmation hearings.
We hope to see Panetta back soon at the public policy Panetta Institute he and his wife, Sylvia, founded at Cal State Monterey Bay. As he leaves government, all Americans can recognize that Leon Panetta has been a good and faithful public servant.