Leon Panetta Weighs In On The Shaping Of Trump's Security Team
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, Donald Trump is sending more hints that retired General James Mattis might be his defense secretary. He told The New York Times yesterday that he's been listening to advice from Mattis already suggesting that torturing terrorism suspects is not such a good idea after all. Trump has already made other appointments official. General Michael Flynn will be national security adviser.
Congressman Mike Pompeo will lead the CIA, if confirmed. And to get a sense of where the new administration might go in terms of national security, we called Leon Panetta, who served as both CIA director and defense secretary under President Obama. And I asked Panetta if anything stood out to him about General Mattis. And he described this incident when Iran threatened American surveillance aircraft over the Persian Gulf.
LEON PANETTA: They actually were going after some of our planes and raised real concerns about how we would address that. And Jim Mattis provided good advice, which was that we had to make clear that we would not tolerate that but, at the same time, not directly engage them but try to send them some clear signals that this would be unacceptable. And because of his advice, the president agreed with it, and we were able to send that signal, and Iran didn't engage in that kind of behavior again.
GREENE: OK, now, there is this law in place, though, that says anyone who has been in the military within the last seven years cannot be secretary of defense, so General Mattis would need a congressional waiver in order to be confirmed. And Leon Panetta said, that's worth debating.
PANETTA: The reason we've always had a civilian in that job is because we really believe that it is policymakers who ought to control the military and not have the military control the military.
GREENE: Secretary Panetta says the key to a successful team is to have good advisers, but in the end, it comes down to the president.
PANETTA: You can operate kind of by the seat of your pants and say, well, you know, we're just not going to take that. But if you're not thinking about, what are the three or four steps down the road, what are the consequences, what are the reactions going to be, what does it mean for our national security and for our future, then the president, frankly, is not doing a good job. So in the end, it's - the buck stops with the president the United States. And for that reason, he's the one who has to understand and take the time to ask questions about just exactly what the issues are and what the consequences will be.
GREENE: I just think about some of the things that General Mattis has been quoted as saying - you know, once, quote, "it's fun to shoot some people." In those tense discussions and those difficult moments you're talking about, is it dangerous to have, say, a secretary of defense who - who would say such things.
PANETTA: Well, you know, you don't want anybody who is - who is a hothead in that room who can - you know, who will just talk off the cuff. Now, Jim Mattis is not somebody who, I believe, fits that description. He is somebody who thinks about these issues and, you know, as I said, has provided good advice to me and to the president.
GREENE: It sounded like you were laughing a little bit when I quoted him back on those comments.
PANETTA: Well, you know, that part of it, frankly, is Jim Mattis speaking his mind, and there's always something refreshing about that, even if you may not like what he says. But at least he says what he thinks.
GREENE: Americans shouldn't be worried about - about that - someone saying that they enjoy shooting people?
PANETTA: No, I - I don't think so. I think the bigger question here is whether Jim Mattis can understand the civilian role that needs to be played as secretary of defense.
GREENE: If Trump actually made good on some of what he promised during the campaign - to resume using torture, to perhaps send terrorism suspects who are American citizens to Guantanamo Bay - would the CIA and people in the military carry out those orders?
PANETTA: Well, you know, the people who serve in the CIA and in the other agencies are responsible not just to the president of the United States but to the Constitution. And so if the president were to order something that did not comply with the Constitution or which violated the laws of this country, then obviously those in that position could very well take a position that they will not do something that violates the law. You can't just suddenly decide that you're going to engage, for example, in torture without considering what the legal consequences of doing that are - is all about. And so you would have to assume that a president is not going to take a step which is going to find him in court.
GREENE: If Donald Trump wanted to expand the use of torture - waterboarding and so forth - could he go and find legal counsel who would - would give him sort of the legal right to do that?
PANETTA: Well, you know, you always make the comment that, if you want to get something done, you can always find a lawyer who can justify it. And I guess he could find somebody who might stretch that interpretation. But from my experience, lawyers, both at the Justice Department and at the CIA, really do take the time to carefully evaluate whether or not that kind of proposal violates our Constitution and violates our laws. And when it comes to waterboarding, I think it's pretty clear that that does cross the line in terms of torture.
GREENE: Just thinking about some of the things that we've talked about - Congressman Pompeo seems to support expanded use of torture, which is something Donald Trump has talked about. General Mattis has talked about a tougher stance on Iran. Michael Flynn has talked about being Muslim and that being a dangerous religion. I mean, is this a team that would roll back some of these things that Donald Trump has said in the heat of the moment on the campaign trail?
PANETTA: That is the question that, I think, all of us are trying to determine the answer to because a lot of irresponsible things were said during the campaign that if they happened would, frankly, hurt our national security in the future. That's going to be the test of whether or not the United States remains a world leader or whether the rest of the world ignores what the United States says and does.
GREENE: Secretary Panetta, always great talking to you. Thank you so much for the time.
PANETTA: Nice to talk to you, David.
GREENE: Leon Panetta talking about a president's foreign policy team, which he has been a part of. He served as both CIA director and as secretary of defense in the Obama administration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.