My fight, my faith

As CIA director, Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63 restored confidence in the agency and oversaw the mission to find Osama bin Laden. Now, as secretary of defense in an age of budget austerity, he has to make sure the Pentagon doesn’t break the bank and that the nation doesn’t break faith with the men and women who serve.

My fight, my faith
Illustration by Alex Williamson

It is a Friday evening in November and Leon Panetta is airborne, in an Air Force version of the Gulfstream jet. As secretary of defense he is on-call 24/7 and his schedule tends toward the full side, so while he flies, we talk: about security, leadership, where we are coming from as a nation and where we are going—in the months and years ahead. One point he wants to make sure is understood: The United States has spent the last decade at war. But that is changing.

“I think we are turning a corner after 10 years of war in this country,” he says. “We’re going to be obviously winding down our combat force in Iraq by the end of the year. We’re in the process of drawing down our forces in Afghanistan. Added to that is the fact that, on terrorism, we have significantly weakened Al-Qaeda the past few years in particular.”

Panetta directed the Central Intelligence Agency from February 2009 through the end of June 2011. As successes, he cites operations the CIA has conducted in Pakistan—“but also going after Al-Qaeda in some of their known nodes in Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa. Obviously the biggest blows have been going after their top leadership.”

On July 1, 2011, Panetta was sworn in as secretary of defense. He was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate—a testimony to the esteem in which he is held by Congress. How that esteem translates into dealing with the minimum $450 billion in budget cuts facing the Pentagon—and the potential for sequestration of hundreds of billions more given the failure of the congressional supercommittee to come up with a deficit-trimming plan in November—is another matter. But U.S. troops did come home from Iraq in December.

“I don’t think you have to choose between national security and our economic security—between protecting the nation and exercising fiscal discipline.”

On the wall in Panetta’s office in the Pentagon are portraits of George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. But Panetta doesn’t have the money to preside over a new Marshall Plan—or a pull-out-all-the-stops response equivalent to the one launched after the Soviets sent the first Sputnik into orbit. So how does he square the fiscal circle that he’s facing now? It’s a daunting challenge, but one for which he seems as well suited as anyone can be: He served as director for Office of Management and Budget for President Clinton and later as chief of staff; before that, while elected to nine terms in Congress, he earned a reputation as a deficit hawk, and he chaired the House Budget Committee. But now, many folks have observed, the budget shoe seems to be on the other foot. It’s a metaphor that only works so far; Panetta has been calling for sacred cows—both entitlements and revenues—to be on the table for some time, including, a few years ago, as a member of the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

“I don’t think you have to choose between national security and our economic security—between protecting the nation and exercising fiscal discipline,” he tells me. “Having dealt with budgets for a portion of my career, I understand that it’s important that we confront the deficit problem in this country and that defense has to pay its part in that effort. So we’ve now been given a number by the Congress in the debt ceiling agreement, and we’re responsible for trying to reduce the defense budget by $450 billion … in a way that protects the best military and the best defense system in the world. It means obviously that we’ll be smaller, but we will be a lighter and more agile and more flexible force that can respond to the threats that exist in the world.”

Having framed the terms of his explanation, Panetta gets down to brass tacks. He’s following four basic guidelines, he says. “One, that we do protect the military in the world. Two, that we not hollow out the force. In the past, every time, we’ve gone into these periods drastically cutting across the board and weakening every element of defense. Third, we’ve got to look at all areas in the budget: Obviously looking at greater efficiency, improving our operations and getting rid of overhead in the Department of Defense; looking at what we can do on procurement reform and trying to improve the whole contracting process; looking at the whole area of modernization—that’s part of procurement reform; [looking at] compensation and trying to see what savings we can get there; trying to tackle force structure reduction as well. All of that goes to the fourth point, which is that I’ve got to maintain faith with the volunteer force. We’ve got the strongest volunteer force in the world, and these are people who’ve deployed a number of times to the war zones. We’ve got to maintain our promise to provide the benefits that they’re entitled to.”


“Maintain faith” is not a phrase Panetta pronounces off-handedly. There’s also his personal faith: Panetta attends Mass regularly. Over the last couple years, helming the CIA and now the Pentagon, he’s not shy about saying that he’s said a lot of Hail Marys.

He’s a man with an easy laugh and isn’t afraid of liberal use of salty language. Among the jokes he likes to tell is this one—shared again when he was back on campus in October 2010, as part of the President’s Speaker Series. “The rabbi and the priest decided they would get to know each other a little better, so one evening they went to a boxing match. Just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross. The rabbi nudged the priest and said, ‘What does that mean?’ The priest said, ‘It doesn’t mean a damn thing if you can’t fight.’”

As for where Panetta got his willingness to go into the ring, he told his SCU audience, “I owe Santa Clara my fight and my faith. All of you know that to succeed in life requires certain beliefs and principles beyond which one can’t act beyond the line that you establish in the sand. And you have to have a willingness to fight for what you believe in, particularly in politics. In many ways, I am thankful to the Jesuits who gave me those principles and those beliefs … I’m particularly thankful to a priest who taught me religion, Fr. Donovan … I remember in one of Fr. Donovan’s classes in religion, where he was talking about the end of the world … how at the end of the world, we would all gather in a large valley somewhere in the Middle East for the last judgment. And as he went through this, I raised my hand and said, ‘Father, it’s a nice story, but I just don’t believe everybody who ever lived is going to gather in a valley someplace in the Middle East for the last judgment.’ There was a long pause and he said, ‘Son, if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.’”

It was a line that drew laughs from the crowd. But to bring the point home, Panetta said, “Now, I’m sure the message was ‘don’t make waves.’” Even so, he said, “I’ve been fighting Fr. Donovan ever since.” The lesson Panetta learned: “You have to question, you have to make waves, and you have to challenge. That’s an important part of life.”

How important? It got Panetta fired from a job in the first Nixon Administration, where he directed the Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and diligently pursued school desegregation at a time when the administration wanted to slow things down. That was in 1970. He was 31 years old.



Turn forward four decades. When Panetta was tasked to head the CIA in 2009, he understood that the agency “had suffered serious credibility problems”—from intelligence failures to involvement with torturing detainees—and had come under attack from Congress and the general public as a result. What Panetta hopes is his legacy at the agency: “The ability to give the CIA the credibility it needed to be able to do its job … We had to do everything possible to restore its real confidence with the American people. A lot culminated in the bin Laden operation. But there were a lot of other things that give a great deal of satisfaction.”

Panetta says that when he began as director, President Obama underscored that “we do everything possible to try to track down bin Laden. At that point, frankly, a lot of effort had been put into trying to find him, and a lot of the intelligence paths led to dead ends.” Panetta met with CIA staff “almost every week to try to find out what was the latest that we were trying to do to locate bin Laden. When we got this intelligence tracking one of his old couriers, we followed him to this compound, and looked at the compound and the unusual features … It was, I think, the first time in many years that the intelligence community thought that they had a serious lead as to where bin Laden could be located. But even then, after locating this compound, there were months of surveillance and months of intelligence gathering to try to determine whether or not he was actually there. In the end, we never really had direct evidence that he was there.”

Even so, it was the best lead since bin Laden was known to be holed up in Tora Bora in fall 2001.

“When you looked at all of the evidence—that it was worth trying to conduct this operation—it was very risky going 150 miles into Pakistan and trying to get our Navy SEALs into the compound, and then back. There were two important moments for me. One was having the president of the United States, with all of the risks involved, go ahead and give the order to conduct the operation. That was a gutsy decision. And then the operation itself, when the SEALs actually got there, not really knowing whether bin Laden was there or not … I was heading up the operation in the CIA, and when word came that we had in fact got him, that was a moment in which you suddenly felt the sense that everything that had been done, all the work … all the sacrifice … had paid off.”

In the past, intelligence activities were too often in silos, Panetta says—“they didn’t talk much with each other”—but the intel community has become “much more capable of pulling pieces together.” In the Abbottabad raid, he cites the work of the team at the agency working on signals intelligence, the military personnel involved in planning the operation, and the special operations forces team that went in. “The perfect example of coordination,” he says.



For Panetta, the raid on Abbottabad stands out as one of the finest accomplishments in his career. One item in his Pentagon office is a yellow brick from the compound, stamped A1. The mark is, coincidentally, the same designation the compound was given by the CIA: A for Abbottabad, 1 for top priority. When the Navy SEALs saw that marking on a brick in the compound, they grabbed it.

Then there’s the wine: a $10,000 bottle of Bordeaux that dates from the Franco-Prussian War. One year ago, Panetta celebrated New Year’s Eve with restaurateur Ted Balestreri and a couple dozen others in Monterey. Panetta laughs before
he recounts the story. He says that talk turned to Balestreri’s collection of fine wines—and which was the finest: an 1870 Château Lafite Rothschild. But Balestreri had no plans to open it. Then Balestreri looked at Panetta and, as Panetta recounts, he offered: “‘If Leon ever catches bin Laden I’ll open it.’ At that point we had had some intelligence that we were on the right track, but I had absolutely no idea that I’d be able to earn a drink from that bottle of wine.”

As Panetta’s wife, Sylvia, recounted to the Monterey Herald, “Leon called me about 7:15 on [May 1] and told me to turn on CNN because the president was going to make an announcement, and by the way, to call Ted and tell him to get ready to open that bottle of wine.”

Plans were made to pop the cork on Dec. 31, to welcome in the new year. Though with the number of guests hoping for a taste, there might only be a few drops apiece. And given the secretary of defense’s responsibilities, there was no guarantee he’d be there for the occasion.



A few drops might leave a glass that looks mostly empty—a metaphor that comes to mind when looking at the budget situation Panetta faces these days. “Here in this job, I’ve got to lead the Defense Department at a time of transition,” he says frankly. “We’ve got budget constraints, but that also gives one an opportunity to help design a national defense—and a force that really reflects the 21st century. If I can help put that national defense together, that kind of a vision, I think that would be my greatest satisfaction.”

What does that mean?

“No more Desert Storms, no more massive tank wars,” he says. Instead, “Smaller, more agile armed forces that must cooperate more closely … [and] a technological edge that no other country has”—the latter both an asset the United States possesses and one that must be preserved to deal with the threats out there. Those threats are not only in Iraq and Afghanistan; nuclear weapons and increasingly sophisticated cyber-warfare tools are a factor with Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia.

Then the conversation returns to keeping faith: “Our greatest asset is the men and women willing to put their lives on the line for country,” he says. “Dedicated and capable, and with a willingness to go to war time and time again. They really are the next Greatest Generation.”

When it comes to tackling budget matters, though—or a willingness to work and make tough decisions—leadership in Washington doesn’t get the same glowing endorsement.

“Our security is not just our military power,” Panetta says. “It’s also in the quality of life that we enjoy in this country. Failure to deal with that is one of the great challenges.”


That’s not the only time Panetta has spoken about security in terms broader than defense forces. His parents, Carmelo Frank and Carmelina Maria, hailed from Calabria, Italy, and settled on California’s Central Coast in 1932. By age 6, Leon was at work washing glasses in the family restaurant. “They had fought most of their life for security—security for their family, security that they didn’t really know in their own home country,” Panetta said a decade ago in a conversation at the University of California, Berkeley. His father wanted him to be a doctor; his mother liked the idea of him becoming a concert pianist.

He attended Catholic grammar schools and Monterey High School before, like his brother Joseph ’55, J.D. ’58, attending Santa Clara, where he studied political science and fulfilled the two-year ROTC requirement. Fifty years later he fondly recalls marching out with fellow cadets to Ryan Field for drills. “And some guys marching back with their hats on backwards,” he says, and he laughs. Then, with memory’s gates open, he observes that classroom topics then are still issues he has to grapple with as secretary of defense.

Panetta chose to continue with ROTC and be commissioned as an officer in the Army. “That ROTC experience and, after that, the two years I spent on active duty, were very important not only to understanding how people work together and accomplish a mission but in giving me a sense of giving something back to my country,” he says. It’s “not only the religious side of SCU that inspired me, but also what I learned from ROTC that inspired my career of public service.”

Also like his brother, he completed a degree in law. He served as a legislative aide to Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel and then in the Nixon Administration, until he was fired. By 1976 he had switched his party affiliation to Democrat and successfully ran for Congress. At that time, annual budget deficits were in the neighborhood of $25 billion to $50 billion; by the early 1980s, they were $500 billion to $600 billion—originating with “the Johnson approach that thought we could fight a war and have ‘guns and butter’ at the same time.”

When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, Panetta warned him: “If you don’t confront this deficit issue, it will eat you alive, it will take away any resources that you want [available] to do the things you want to do to establish your legacy as president.”

Clinton tapped Panetta as director of the Office of Management and Budget. That spring, Panetta delivered the commencement address to the SCU School of Law and told grads that the most important quality they could take into the world wasn’t “how smart you are or how much law you know, the question is whether you have what I would call legalum commonsensum” in dealing with others and solving problems. Panetta also confided in his audience: “I have developed a rather infamous reputation for telling the truth. Only in Washington does the truth make headlines in this country. What I haven’t told people is that it is my Catholic background and the fear of hell that makes me tell the truth.”

In June 1994, Clinton appointed Panetta his chief of staff, and Panetta set out to give the Clinton White House “greater discipline in terms of how the place operated.” He’s credited with helping shape a balanced federal budget that decade. Among the accomplishments in Congress he also cites the creation of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary. And, in the downsizing of the military following the end of the Cold War, he was involved with the conversion of Fort Ord, near Monterey, from military to civilian use. The military base represented a quarter of the local economy—so successfully closing the base without devastating the area’s livelihood has been cited in more recent press coverage, as the broader economic impact of defense budget cuts resurface. Fort Ord became home to, among other things, the now 16-year-old Cal State Monterey Bay—which is home to the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy.


When Panetta stepped down from government in 1997, Santa Clara welcomed him back to the classroom to teach an upper-level political science course titled Thirty Years in Washington: Leon Panetta’s Perspectives on Policies, Politics, and Personalities. Nearly 15 years later, have the lessons changed? When we talk in November, he underscores the importance of being able to do your work with integrity. “Protect your integrity and the ability to help others—that’s what matters most.”

In California, the 73-year-old father of three sons and grandfather of six makes his home on a 12-acre walnut farm in Carmel Valley that was purchased by his parents in 1947. That Friday night we spoke, he was flying home—for a weekend when the Panetta Institute, headed by Sylvia, was honoring Robert Gates, the previous secretary of defense.

One of the lessons Panetta has said he’s tried to impart to students in years past is: “We govern in this country either through leadership or through crisis. If leadership is not there, then we will govern by crisis. Crisis will drive what we do, and today, too often, we govern by crisis, rather than leadership.”

The word leadership can be a nebulous thing, though. For Panetta, it’s clearly meant looking for pragmatic compromises at some times. And, as he’s said, sometimes going into the ring. He told his Santa Clara audience just over a year ago: “We often bless ourselves with the hope that everything is going to be fine in this country, but, very frankly, it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless we are willing to fight for it, to fight for a better America, an America that is founded on its faith and on its great noble ideas, to fight for the American dream of giving our children a better life, but, most important, to fight to always strengthen the government of, by, and for the people.”

C.V. for the SECDEF

b. 1938 in Monterey, the son of Italian immigrants. Later washed dishes in his parents’ restaurant

1960 graduates magna cum laude from Santa Clara with a bachelor’s in political science

1963 receives J.D. from Santa Clara

1964 joins U.S. Army as second lieutenant

1966 discharged from Army; serves as legislative assistant to Sen. Thomas Kuchel

1969-70 serves in Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare and is named director of Office for Civil Rights. Fired for too aggressively enforcing school desegregation

1970-71 serves as aide to John Lindsay, mayor of New York City

1971-76 practices law in Monterey

1977-93 serves in U.S. House of Representatives. Key role in 1990 budget summit. Credited with developing package that leads to balanced budget in 1998.

1993-94 directs Offie of Management and Budget for President Bill Clinton.

1994-97 Chief of staff for President Clinton.

1997 teaches political science at SCU and co-founds the Panetta Institute

2006 appointed to Iraq Study Group, to conduct an assessment of the war in Iraq

January 2009 named director of CIA

July 2011 sworn in as secretary of defense

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