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Leon Panetta Warns Trump Travel Ban Increases Chances Of Attack

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the government's case to re-impose the ban on travelers from seven countries and on refugees worldwide. And when they do, they'll have a brief filed by 10 former national security officials, most of them political appointees from the Obama administration. And they argue that President Trump's ban would, among other things, endanger U.S. troops in the field.

One of the signatories to that brief is former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who joins us now. Welcome to the program.

LEON PANETTA: Nice to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: This brief goes beyond just saying that this is not an effective way to counter or prevent acts of terrorism. You say it would endanger U.S. troops in the field. It would disrupt key counterterrorism foreign policy and national security partnerships. What's a hypothetical case of how this order could actually do damage to U.S. counterterrorism efforts?

PANETTA: Well, fighting terrorism has taken place on a broad front that involves obviously our counterterrorism operations. It involves our presence in Iraq and Syria. That depends on working relationships with those who are allies. I mean we're fighting alongside Iraqis. We're fighting alongside Syrians. We're fighting alongside those from Yemen.

SIEGEL: But they're not all doing it for a visa, are they?

PANETTA: No, they're doing it to work with the United States in a joint effort to fight terrorism. But when there's an order from the White House that says that they are prevented from being able to come to our country if they want to and meet our requirements, that undermines the trust that is so important when you're out there on the battlefield together.

SIEGEL: When the White House is challenged on this executive order, they cite President Obama's action in 2011 slowing down the influx of Iraqi refugees. To you, what's so different between what they're doing now and what President Obama did then?

PANETTA: President Obama did not take a position where he did a total ban on those coming in from a particular country. Neither did George Bush. The reality is, we haven't had to take that step because we've had a vetting process that includes about 20 steps, takes two years and has worked pretty effectively. Now, you know, if the administration were concerned about the vetting process, then that's a place where they should strengthen it.

SIEGEL: Isn't that what they say they're going to do, that this is a temporary pause while they get a stronger system of vetting in place?

PANETTA: Frankly, that's what they should have done. No administration prior to this one has had to implement a ban in order to decide how to improve the vetting process. And so that's what this administration ultimately ought to do. They ought to revoke this order and commit themselves to providing the manpower and the resources necessary in order to properly vet those that want to come into this country.

SIEGEL: But just to be clear, wouldn't they argue that the order would ban anyone from Libya, and if that person is not a Muslim, say, they wouldn't get in right now, that in fact it's not just about Muslims? It's people from these overwhelmingly Muslim countries.

PANETTA: Well, I think that's a pretty weak argument when you're targeting those countries. And the problem is the president himself during the campaign made very clear that he would ban all Muslims. So when you put those two together, it clearly carries that implication.

SIEGEL: Just curious - in addition to having been secretary of Defense and CIA director, you were an OMB director. You worked on a White House staff. I mean you've seen policy being made from all different angles here. Is there some change in the wind about who has authority over the borders here? That is, has this - does this particular conflict put in motion the responsibility for who can say those people can't come into this country right now?

PANETTA: Well, you know thank God. What I've learned throughout my 50 years of public life is that our forefathers did a great thing in establishing a system of checks and balances. And I depend on that to be able to make the right judgments about how we protect our borders and how we provide opportunities for those that want to come to this country. I think there are lessons to be learned here that we can provide both for our security and protect our freedoms without having to sacrifice either.

SIEGEL: Mr. Panetta, good to talk with you again. Thanks.

PANETTA: Nice to talk with you.

SIEGEL: Leon Panetta - he's one of 10 signatories to a brief filed with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals arguing against the Trump administration on its immigration executive order. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.