Panetta’s Memoir Blasts Obama On His Leadership, Blames Him For State Of Iraq And Syria

"Worthy Fights" by Leon Panetta
"Worthy Fights" by Leon Panetta Penguin Press

Though memoirs are nothing new to Washington, their contents can be particularly cutting when faulting a current president—and Obama’s been hit with a series of not-so-happy former cabinet members’ tell-all-ish books lately.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates got the ball rolling by harshly questioning the president’s leadership in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed with Hard Choices, where she distanced herself from Obama’s foreign policy. And now, former Secretary of Defense and past CIA Director Leon Panetta has penned the latest critique. In Worthy Fights, released on Tuesday, Panetta describes a president that failed to properly lead on numerous occasions and that “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.” But beyond the Obama criticism, Panetta sheds light on decisions made within the administration, particularly regarding the Middle East.  

Panetta served as Obama’s CIA director from 2009 until 2011, and questioned Obama’s leadership from the start—he, along with others, wondered why Obama was hiring someone with such little intelligence experience for the role. But Obama was convinced the CIA needed to regain credibility, and believed that Panetta could do the job. After Gates left in 2011, Obama nominated Panetta as secretary of defense—a position he held until 2013. “President Obama’s decision to nominate me to the CIA was the single most surprising appointment I received during my years in government,” he wrote, “but his suggestion to move me over to the Department of Defense was a close second.”

Panetta took office as CIA director on the heels of the Bush administration banning “enhanced interrogation techniques.” During his confirmation he denounced methods of torture and said he would only request “additional authority” in a “ticking time bomb scenario.”

In his book, Panetta addresses critics on both sides of the enhanced interrogation debate, revealing a bit more about his own perspective. He says that while torture “cut too deeply into America’s sense of itself,” we must consider that “harsh interrogation did cause some prisoners to yield to their captors and produced leads that helped our government understand Al Qaeda’s organization, methods and leadership.”

Though he was ultimately overruled, Panetta and fellow national security officials argued against declassifying memos related to the Bush-era interrogation tactics. He said they could expose details about the agency and their methods, as well as break promises of confidentiality—especially with countries that allowed the CIA to interrogate within their borders. He added that “it seemed wrong to me to ask a public servant to take a risk for his country and assure him that it was both legal and approved, then, years later, to suggest that he had done something wrong.”

Obama’s decision to ignore this advice is a basis for Panetta’s next criticism—he found Obama to be too insular, often limiting decision-making to his inner circle and forgoing the advice of senior officials. He believed this diminished the cabinet’s importance and usefulness. Obama also restricted who was able to represent the government in public speeches and settings to his political advisers—David Plouffe or David Axelrod. Panetta felt failing to use specialists hurt the administration’s ability to explain the problems it faced to the public, or properly represent its policies. He argued it often skewed the conversation and gave non-political problems a political face.

He also suggests that the president has disdain for Congress, citing that his senior staff “didn’t want any agency head revealing executive branch deliberations to members of Congress or cutting their own deals with members on policy questions.” He cites an example where he cut a deal with Chairman Dianne Feinstein, granting her staff access to hundreds of thousands of documents relating to the Bush-era interrogation policies. Panetta says Obama was infuriated, underscoring the president’s hesitation to consult with Congress on sensitive matters. He vaguely attributes this lack of inclusion to the breakdown in trust that led Feinstein to accuse the CIA of spying on her staff, which it did—but Panetta evades that point.

One of Panetta’s biggest criticisms concerns Obama’s handling of the war in Iraq. In 2011, Panetta, along with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military commanders, advocated for leaving a modest American presence to help preserve stability in a country that was on the brink of falling apart. Panetta voiced his fear “that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S.” But the administration was so eager to rid itself of the unpopular war that Obama did not actively advocate for a deal with then-Iraqi prime minister Nuri Kamal-al-Maliki to keep a small number of troops there. The last American troops left at the end of 2011. Panetta believes that “ a small, focused U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with Al Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.”

He is also heavily critical of Obama’s Syria policies. He writes that Obama drew a clear “red line” in which the US would strike in the event of the use of chemical weapons, but he abruptly flip-flopped without consulting his national security cabinet members. Obama chose to defer the decision to Congress which Panetta says was, “as he well knew, an almost certain way to scotch any action.” Instead, Obama agreed to allow Assad to hand over his weapons, which Panetta considers a mistake. He believes failing to act hurt America’s credibility saying “the power of the United States rests on its word, and clear signals are important both to deter adventurism and to reassure allies that we can be counted on.”

He also writes that two years ago he advocated for the U.S. to arm moderate Syrian rebels. In a 60 Minutes interview last month, Panetta asserted that doing so would have helped the current situation in Syria and that we now “pay the price for not doing that in what we see happening with ISIS.” He writes, “If we don’t prevent these Sunni extremists from taking over large swaths of territory in the Middle East, it will be only a matter of time before they turn their sights on us.”

It is important to note that administration criticisms are not new to the Beltway and boss critiques are not new to Panetta. By 1971, Panetta’s views on civil rights had veered too far from the position of the administration, so he resigned and wrote a biting take-down of his then-boss Nixon called Bring Us Together: The Nixon Team and Civil Rights Retreat. While the book both infuriated and worried Nixon (and this book seems to be having the same effect on members of the Obama administration), Panetta cites his determination and opposition to the Nixon administration while in the Office of Civil Rights as among the reasons Obama wanted him to become CIA director in the first place. If anything, he has learned to opt for sharing his views in tell-alls.