Outspoken Panetta Returns From Iraq, Afghanistan
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
We've been reporting this week on Leon Panetta's very first trip as secretary of Defense. It was a quick, in-and-out trip to both Afghanistan and Iraq. But it was long enough for the newly minted secretary to make quite an impression. His trip was punctuated with rough and tumble rhetoric like this, when he was talking with U.S. troops in Baghdad about his last job as CIA director.
Secretary LEON PANETTA (U.S. Department of Defense): One of the proudest moments I've had is the ability to put together the plan to go after bin Laden and to get that son of a (bleep).
KELLY: NPR's national security correspondent Rachel Martin was on that trip. And Rachel, as people may have gathered from that bleep we just heard, his language was pretty salty. I gather that was a theme on this trip.
RACHEL MARTIN: Some rough talk. A lot of wide eyes at some of those remarks made by Secretary Panetta. And you know, it's a stark difference. I think what struck the traveling press corps so much was the difference between Secretary Panetta and his predecessor, Robert Gates. Time after time, Secretary Panetta used all kinds of - shall we say - salty language.
One of the most memorable moments, Mary Louise, was in Iraq. And he was talking about Iraq's inability to make a decision on whether or not they want the U.S. to stay in that country beyond the 2011 deadline. Take a listen to what he said.
Sec. PANETTA: I'd like things to move a lot faster here, frankly, in terms of the decision-making process. I'd like them to make a decision - you know, they want us to stay, don't they want us to stay. You know, they want to have, you know - get a minister of defense, or don't they want to get a minister of defense. But damn it, make a decision.
MARTIN: Also referencing Iraq's inability to appoint a minister of defense. You can tell, he's a little frustrated only a little over a week on the job.
KELLY: And that is very different from the things you would've heard coming out of Secretary Gates' mouth when he made these sort of trips abroad.
MARTIN: Yes. As you know, having covered Secretary Gates yourself, very mild-mannered guy, Midwestern sensibilities - from Kansas. And it's not that he wouldn't get frustrated or angry; he did. But he didn't often use such strong talk. And it was also - what was notable on this trip was how much interaction Secretary Panetta had with the press.
On these trips, Secretary Gates kind of cloistered himself off within his so-called circle of trust. In Iraq, he would often be seen in the evenings smoking cigars with his trusted confidantes - not really mingling, schmoozing with the press corps.
Secretary Panetta, different story. He was kind of wandering around, chatting folks up. One morning, he just sat down and had breakfast across from me and seemed much more open to talking informally, unscripted, with the press.
KELLY: You know, it almost makes you wonder if Secretary Panetta is making up for lost time. I mean, he would've been on a very short leash in his old job at the CIA. Is what we're seeing now Leon Panetta unplugged?
MARTIN: Completely. And you know, he's a politician. He was a congressman from the state of California. People say this is in his blood. This is his DNA. He's a people person. And for the last couple of years, he's been sequestered at the CIA. No public speaking engagements - I mean, never gave a press conference; very rarely spoke on the record.
And you know, he could be forthright with the CIA employees - often was, it's what endeared him to them. But it's a lot different than speaking in the spotlight and being in the public eye. All of a sudden, he's back. And you can kind of tell, he's into it.
KELLY: Now, there is a downside, though, to being forthright, which is he made a few blunders on this trip.
MARTIN: That's right. He did. First in Afghanistan, when talking about the Obama administration's plan to start withdrawing troops there. He said that 70,000 U.S. troops would be in Afghanistan through 2014. That's counter to what the Obama administration has said would happen there. The press secretary had to come out and clarify, said Secretary Panetta misspoke.
And again in Iraq, another controversial remark in Baghdad. He said that the reason that U.S. troops are in Iraq is because of the 9/11 terrorists attacks. Reporters jumped all over that because that sounded an awful lot like language that the Bush administration used to justify the war in Iraq. And again, the acting press secretary had to come out and make some clarifications, which is pretty rare for someone to have to do.
KELLY: Rachel, thanks so much.
MARTIN: You're very welcome.
KELLY: That's NPR's Rachel Martin, just back from covering Leon Panetta's first trip as secretary of Defense.
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