The inspiring and revelatory autobiography of the defense secretary and CIA director who led the intelligence war that killed Bin Laden, among many important roles in a legendary career
It could be said that Leon Panetta has had two of the most consequential careers of any American public servant in the past fifty years. His first career, beginning as an army intelligence officer and including a distinguished run as one of Congress’s most powerful and respected members, lasted thirty-five years and culminated in his transformational role as Clinton’s budget czar and White House chief of staff. He then “retired” to establish the Panetta Institute with his wife of fifty years, Sylvia; to serve on the Iraq Study Group; and to protect his beloved California coastline. But in 2009, he accepted what many said was a thankless task: returning to public office as the director of the CIA, taking it from a state of turmoil after the Bush-era torture debates and moving it back to the vital center of America’s war against Al Qaeda, including the campaign that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. And then, in the wake of bin Laden’s death, Panetta became the U.S. secretary of defense, inheriting two troubled wars in a time of austerity and painful choices.
Like his career, Worthy Fights is a reflection of Panetta’s values. It is imbued with the frank, grounded, and often quite funny spirit of a man who never lost touch with where he came from: his family’s walnut farm in beautiful Carmel Valley, California. It is also a testament to a lost kind of political leadership, which favors progress and duty to country over partisanship. Panetta is a Democrat who pushed for balanced budgets while also expanding care for the elderly and sick; a devout Catholic who opposes the death penalty but had to weigh every drone strike from 2009 through 2011. Throughout his career, Panetta’s polestar has been his belief that a public servant’s real choice is between leadership or crisis. Troubles always come about through no fault of one’s own, but most can be prevented with courage and foresight.
As always, Panetta calls them as he sees them in Worthy Fights. Suffused with its author’s decency and stubborn common sense, the book is an epic American success story, a great political memoir, and a revelatory view onto many of the great figures and events of our time.
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Leon Panetta served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009–2011, and as secretary of defense from 2011–2013. An Italian American Democrat, he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977–1993, the director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1993–1994, and President Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994–1997. He is the founder of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and has served as professor of public policy at his alma mater, Santa Clara University.
Jim Newton is editor at large of the Los Angeles Times, where he has worked for twenty-five years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, and columnist. He is the author of two critically acclaimed biographies, Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made and Eisenhower: The White House Years.
I said good-bye to a fallen CIA colleague, a personable, driven young woman named Elizabeth Hanson, on a warm May morning in Washington in 2010. She was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, in the shade of a stately line of willow oaks, amid thousands of American heroes and in the company of hundreds of friends, family, and coworkers from the Central Intelligence Agency. I was at the time the director of the CIA. Elizabeth Hanson had worked for me.
It was a graveside service, modest and brief; she was buried in Area 60, beside many veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, just over a small rise from the Pentagon. Hanson and six other members of our agency were killed on December 30, 2009, at a remote CIA base in the Khost province of eastern Afghanistan. Liz Hanson and her colleagues were there that day to meet a potential agent, a jihadist who said he wanted to work for the CIA and steer us to the leadership of Al Qaeda. Instead, when he arrived at the meeting he detonated a diabolically powerful suicide vest, killing seven of our best and injuring a dozen more. That explosion was a signal tragedy for the CIA—one of the largest losses of life in the agency’s history.
The attack shook the CIA, and I had spent much of that winter and spring consoling our employees and traveling around America to share the grief of the families of those men and women. Hanson’s funeral was the last of seven such services I had attended. They included small private services and a large Catholic mass. Some were packed with dignitaries, others limited to friends and family. I met with mourners in Fredericksburg, Maryland; Virginia Beach; Clinton, Massachusetts; Akron, Ohio; and central Illinois. And this was my third trip to Arlington. After the funeral mass in Clinton, boys and girls stood in the snow outside the church, some quietly waving flags or signs that read, THANKS FOR KEEPING US SAFE. In Akron, the widow of one of our fallen, Scott Roberson, was carrying his child, a girl. One eulogist imagined the day when their daughter would come to visit the CIA and touch the star etched into the marble of our Memorial Wall, marking her father’s sacrifice, her heart full of pride for a man she never had the luck to know.
Two realizations connected all of those ceremonies: Nothing could return those young men and women to their families, and I could only offer them a promise. America would do everything in its power to bring those behind the murders to justice. They hit us; America would hit back.
By 2010, nearly a decade after the events of September 11, 2001, the sustained response by America and its allies had significantly degraded Al Qaeda, but it remained a fighting force, still under the spell of Osama bin Laden and directed by him and his close lieutenants. Now, with the burial of Elizabeth Hanson still fresh in my mind, American analysts reported that they had found one of those deputies—in fact, one of those directly responsible for the attack at Khost. He was down for the night, deep in a terrorist compound.
That was a significant piece of news. This terrorist was a shrewd and methodical operative who had risen within Al Qaeda in recent years while repeatedly eluding our attempts to take him off the battlefield. Khost was only the latest of his crimes. So finding him represented a victory in and of itself.
There was, however, a catch: He was not alone. Al Qaeda leaders knew that American policy was to avoid civilian casualties wherever possible, and they had adapted their habits to that realization. By 2010, the organization’s top terrorists would often stay close to family members or other noncombatants, theorizing that those shields would dissuade the United States from conducting operations against them. Some leaders who had long traveled by themselves now brought along children, exploiting our humanity while debasing their own. Now with our target in the house half a world away were a wife and at least two children. The reports suggested that others might be in the house as well. Any operation against him might kill others too.
That was not a prospect I took lightly. I was raised Catholic. I was an altar boy. Since my earliest years, I’ve attended mass on Sundays and holy days. I carry a rosary and believe that life is sacred. Moreover, I’m a husband and the father of three sons. But I also deeply believe in duty to country. I have spent the majority of my life in the service of the United States—I was in the army, I was a Senate aide and later director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, aide to the mayor of New York City, congressman for the Central Coast of California, Office of Management and Budget director, and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. I’ve had the honor of being elected by the people of my hometown and endured the stress of being fired by President Nixon. In 2010, at the helm of the CIA, this time placed in a position of responsibility by President Obama, I was once again mindful of my duty. In each of those jobs, I’ve tried to focus on the obligations that they entail. I’ve fought to desegregate schools, to protect the California coastline, to balance the federal budget. I’ve done so out of a sense of duty, and also of obligation, of repaying a debt that my family owes this nation.
That’s because this nation made my family’s dreams possible. I’m the son of Italian immigrants who came to this country to give their children a better life. That was their dream of country and family, and I am acutely conscious of fulfilling that dream, of recognizing the opportunities that the United States offered. This country has given me much, and I take seriously my obligations to serve and protect it.
So in this situation the moral dilemma was this: If one of those responsible for Elizabeth Hanson’s murder was allowed to escape, he might kill others, including more Americans. But to eliminate the threat on that night might require taking the lives of innocents. In such a situation, how does one balance duty to country and respect for life?
From a small room at the National Security Agency, which I happened to be visiting, I spoke to White House officials to review the matter. They sounded a note of caution. Avoiding collateral damage had been a hallmark of President Obama’s approach to these operations. All of us knew that any operation that killed civilians was to be authorized only under extraordinary circumstances. Did these qualify? We all understood that if our target was spared in order to protect his family, he would strike at us again, and without the compunctions that we had regarding the deaths of civilians.
After a few searching moments, I made up my own mind. The professionals working on this mission needed to keep looking for a way to isolate him, to minimize any risk to anyone else. But all of us working on national security matters for the United States had an overriding obligation: He could not be allowed to get away.
Hours later, he was dead. A grave threat to America had been eliminated. His wife, with whom this country had no quarrel, died in the same operation.
The challenges of protecting this nation, safeguarding its economy, providing opportunity to its citizens, and preserving its treasures have been mainstays of my life. Those challenges are rarely easy, and they sometimes demand deep searching of one’s soul, the fingering of a rosary, the whispered Hail Mary. In considering those questions, I have been blessed with gifted mentors and, especially, loving parents whose devotion to the United States was forged in their appreciation for the opportunities it offered. It is with my parents that my story begins.
POLITICS AND PROGRESS
“A Better Life”
My father arrived in the United States in the fashion of so many who came before and so many who would follow: He came in search of opportunity, and found it after passing through the sober and hopeful halls of Ellis Island. He was one of eighteen hundred third-class passengers aboard the Providence, which landed on October 25, 1921. He declared his profession as “peasant” and his total assets as twenty-five dollars. He was en route to join his older brother Bruno, then in Sheridan, Wyoming. My father was the youngest of thirteen siblings. His name was Carmelo Panetta, and he was twenty-three years old.
He first left home during World War I, when he was drafted into the Italian army. He was wounded in 1918 during the Battle of the Piave River, an important Italian victory. He rarely talked about that experience, for my father was a quiet man, resolute and hardworking, devoted to values that some might find quaint: family, duty, faith. He did not lecture on those ideas, but he lived them. He also was a very good cook.
After working briefly in New York and Wyoming, he joined the sibling to whom he was closest, his rambunctious brother Tony, in California, and found a job as a cook. Like so many immigrants before and since, he took jobs wherever he could. He worked in Huntington Beach, south of Los Angeles, and Marin County, north of San Francisco, making a decent living but finding himself lonely in his adopted country. He was past his thirtieth birthday, and his vision of himself as a husband and father was missing a few pieces. Though my father had been in the United States for nearly a decade by then, his search for a bride turned him toward home. He knew where to look for a nice Italian girl. In 1932, he sailed for Italy.
He found my mother in church. Family lore is a little murky on the details but clear on the basics: Having returned to Calabria, at the toe of the boot of Italy, my father ventured down the mountains from his native Gerace to the slightly more prosperous coastal village of Siderno. There, he stood at the back of a church one Sunday and spotted a tall, dark-haired, attractive young woman. He made inquiries and discovered that the lovely eighteen-year-old Carmelina who had caught his eye was the daughter of Giuseppe Prochilo, a local member of the merchant marine. Inquiries were made and at least one obstacle was overcome: My Nona initially objected to the union, preferring instead that my father be betrothed to Carmelina’s older sister, who wasn’t getting any younger. Nona also objected to my father’s plans to bring his new bride to America and thus away from her family. But my father persisted. He wanted the girl he had seen in church. Eventually, and with the help of my Nono, he prevailed. Perseverance was one of his strongest traits.
Now wed, Carmelo returned to the United States with his young bride and retraced his steps. They arrived in New York, where Carmelo had bought a small piece of property, but elected to move on, heading again for Wyoming and his brother Bruno. Bruno was a hard worker and had a big family; his three sons proudly served in World War II and later ran a successful food wholesale business. It was there, in Sheridan in 1933, that my mother gave birth to my brother, Joe. But both the harsh winters and the tough economic times were hard on my parents. They did not stay long. Seeking better weather and opportunity, they pushed forward to California, where they rejoined Tony. This time the young couple with their infant son eventually landed in Monterey.
It’s easy to see what appealed to them. Monterey in those days—and even today—has an Italian feel. It’s nestled in a beautiful bay, and the deep water of the Pacific Coast offered a bountiful fishing ground. Much of the city was devoted to fishing—many men fished and many women worked in the processing factories made famous by John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which was published just a few years after the Panetta family made Monterey our home. Steinbeck’s great novel captured the spirit of Monterey—raucous, tender, a little threadbare, but very tightly knit. In Steinbeck’s words, Monterey was “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”
It was there that I was born in 1938. We lived in an apartment building on Van Buren Street, in a largely Italian-American community, naturally known as “Spaghetti Hill.” Many of our neighbors were fishermen, and nets were hung through the alleys and backyards in the afternoons to dry. I can remember playing among them and once getting so trapped in the webbing that my brother had to come and untangle me.
My father had been working at a restaurant called Biff’s up until about the time I was born. It was then that he and a fellow Calabrese, Dominic Luscri, decided to go into business together, with Dominic opening a bar and my father launching a restaurant of his own. The two establishments abutted each other, and a swinging door between them allowed patrons to take their drinks from Dominic’s place to my father’s. The new restaurant was located at the intersection of Alvarado and Del Monte in the heart of old downtown Monterey. It was called Carmelo’s Café, and it became the center of our lives.
Modeled on a restaurant called New Joe’s in San Francisco, the café served casual Italian fare, along with steaks and chops, hamburgers and salads. Some guests sat at the counter, others in booths. The tabletops were plain wood, no tablecloths. Carmelo’s Café was open six days a week, closed on Tuesdays. Both my parents worked there, my dad as the chef, my mother anchoring the cash register. Joe and I also helped out sometimes, washing dishes, peeling potatoes, or doing other chores. The café was part of a lively downtown, surrounded by bars and pool halls. Customers included the colorful mix of men and women who made up Monterey in those days: fishermen, shop owners, businesspeople, and servicemen from nearby Fort Ord, which was a huge training post at the time. Thousands of young men from across the nation came to the post to train for the battlefields of World War II, so Monterey was their last stop before war, a last chance for a drink or a plate of spaghetti.
There was a button beneath the cash register that my mother used to summon the military police from the base when soldiers got too frisky with her, which was fairly often. One particularly moony soldier begged her to “leave that Greek,” a mistaken reference to my father, “and run away with me.” My mother hit the button.
Not long after I was born, my mother’s father, my Nono, Giuseppe, came to pay us a visit. He was used to traveling—his time in the merchant marine had taken him around the world several times in the old sailing and steam ships—but he never could persuade my grandmother to travel far from home. As a result, he arrived by himself, thinking it would be for a brief visit, a chance to meet his youngest grandson, me.
Instead, war broke out in Europe. Nono, as I always called him, was an alien and could not return. He was stuck with us. It was my good fortune.
Through my early childhood, Nono and I were...
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