Panetta: Fight Against Terrorism Will Be A Long, Sustained War In a new memoir, Leon Panetta says he and other presidential advisers argued to leave some U.S. forces in Iraq after 2011. That might have left Iraq in better position to fight ISIS, he tells NPR.
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Panetta: Fight Against Terrorism Will Be A Long, Sustained War

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Panetta: Fight Against Terrorism Will Be A Long, Sustained War

Panetta: Fight Against Terrorism Will Be A Long, Sustained War

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We're going to hear next from Leon Panetta. He stepped down last year as secretary of defense. As a member of the Obama administration, Panetta was involved in many of the major foreign-policy decisions of the last six years.


As director of the CIA, Panetta carried out President Obama's decision to end enhanced interrogation of terror suspects. And he oversaw the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. Soon after, the president moved Panetta over to the Pentagon, and there, he oversaw the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and the withdrawal from Iraq.

MARTIN: He was also there when President Obama was first deliberating whether to arm rebels in Syria, something he didn't do until the threat from ISIS emerged this year. Panetta saw a president conscious of a war-weary public, both eager to move on from a decade of war in the Middle East.

LEON PANETTA: He became reticent about, you know, whether or not we should in fact exercise strong world leadership. And what we all realized is that if the United States doesn't provide leadership in a very troubled world, nobody else will. And I think he now realizes that, and for that reason, I think he's back in stride.

MARTIN: And much of the president's focus is now back in the Middle East, conducting airstrikes now in Syria as well as Iraq, vowing not to send combat troops back to the region. Leon Panetta explains in his new memoir that he and other top national security advisers to the president argued to keep some U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq after 2011. Looking back, Panetta won't say that leaving a residual force there would have prevented the rampant violence that ISIS militants have brought to Iraq. But he says it would have helped give Iraqis a better chance at fighting back.

PANETTA: In the vacuum that developed after we pulled out, I think the problem was that Maliki basically went his own way.

MARTIN: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

PANETTA: That's right. And he began to go after the Sunnis, antagonize the Kurds and created the kind of sectarianism that I think ultimately resulted in supporting the breeding of ISIS.

MARTIN: But, you know, a lot of critics of the president make it sound like he had a choice in whether or not to keep a residual force on the ground. But the issue was the status of forces agreement, that the Iraqis wouldn't guarantee legal protections for American troops, was it not?

PANETTA: Well, let's make no mistake about it; the primary responsibility for what happened rests with Prime Minister Maliki. He was the head of Iraq. He was the person who had the responsibility to try and make it happen, and he continued to resist it. And I guess I've often felt that we should have put a lot more pressure on him.

MARTIN: In the end, do you think that the administration could have put more pressure to achieve a deal and didn't?

PANETTA: Well, you know, I'm the kind of individual that thinks that when - it's important to try to ensure that all of the gains that we had fought for and all the sacrifices that had been made there, that it was really important to continue to be involved.

Look, the fact is that today we are back in Iraq and that the Iraqi government has provided the kind of agreement that is necessary for us to operate there. I think what we needed to do was to push Maliki to provide it at that time as well.

MARTIN: You said recently in an interview with USA Today that the current fight against terrorism will end up being a, quote, "30-year war." There are questions about how to make that legal. The current fight against ISIS has been justified by the administration under something called the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or the AUMF, which was passed by Congress after 9/11, the same authority that the president has said should be repealed because it's too broad and shouldn't be used to justify perpetual war. Does there need to be a new law?

PANETTA: I think it would be well for the president and the Congress to agree on the kind of authority that should be provided to the president in order to conduct this war on terrorism. I think that would be important for the country. I think it would be important to show that both Republicans and Democrats support this effort. I think it would be important in terms of making sure that there are no questions about the authority of the president of the United States to be able to fight what I think is going to be a long and sustained war against ISIS and against other elements of terrorism.

MARTIN: You write in the book that we must, quote, "not be forced to choose between security and our values. We can and we must preserve both." But at the same time, you also admit that there are inevitable trade-offs. You don't personally support the use of enhanced interrogation, but you write that there was information that the U.S. might never have received had interrogators - and I'm quoting here - not been allowed to inflict pressure, anxiety and even pain on subjects. There seems to be a disconnect there.

PANETTA: Well, you know, on one hand, you know, from my personal point of view, I thought that some of the enhanced interrogation techniques, you know - I felt as the president did, that they crossed a line with regards to the value system in this country. And I was glad and supported the president's decision to eliminate that kind of approach. And I honestly believe that - you know, talking to the FBI director and others, that there are other ways to be able to obtain that kind of information.

Having said that, I also recognize that as a result of the interrogation that did take place, that there were some bits and pieces of intelligence that were gathered from that that came together and did help. Now, does that mean that we ought to use those kinds of techniques in the future? No, I don't think we need to. And I think ultimately we can gain that kind of information and do it in a way that is in line with what we believe as a country.

MARTIN: Does that mean you think the American public just has to be willing to incur a certain amount of risk in order to preserve American values?

PANETTA: I don't think we have to choose between our security and our freedom. And I believe that because frankly, you know, the operations that I was involved with as CIA director and what I was involved with as secretary of defense, the reality is that Congress - the president was fully involved in those decisions. The Congress was fully involved in those decisions. The courts were involved in those decisions. Steps were taken to make sure that we abided by the requirements of our Constitution, and yet at the same time, we have been able to protect this country from another 9/11-type attack.

So I think we can balance those two. Should we be more transparent about how we protect our security? I think we can be. But at the same time, I don't think we ought to take any steps that increase the risk to the American people with regards to our security.

MARTIN: Leon Panetta served as secretary of defense and director of the CIA for president Obama. His new memoir is called "Worthy Fights," and it's out today. Secretary Panetta, thank you so much for talking with us.

PANETTA: Thank you very much, Rachel.

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