On February 12, 2009, Monterey Peninsula native son Leon Edward Panetta became Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was a controversial choice for the job. But President Barack Obama saw in Panetta the integrity, commitment and intellectual horsepower that has impressed his friends and colleagues since he entered civilian public service in 1966.
“I have the utmost respect for Leon Panetta,” then President-elect Obama remarked on January 6, 2009. “I think that he is one of the finest public servants that we have had. He brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy.”
Panetta was born in Monterey to Italian immigrants who first ran a restaurant and later the Carmel Valley ranch he today shares with his wife Sylvia. He has held an extraordinary series of jobs, starting with working for his parents, and leading into the Army and as a legislative aide in the Senate. His career took off with positions that included head of the Office for Civil Rights under President Richard Nixon, executive assistant to New York Mayor John Lindsay, eight-term Congressman representing the Monterey area, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Chief of Staff in the Clinton administration and member of the Iraq Study Group. He is a powerful voice in advocating for ocean health, and was a member of the Pew Oceans Commission.
Since coming home in 1997, Panetta has been director of the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay.
“Not only is Leon a seasonedWashington worker,” says Sylvia Panetta, “but he’s honest, forthright, loyal and very, very bright.” How does she feel about his returning to the East Coast?
“We were a bicoastal couple for many years,” she says. “We’re accustomed.” Mrs. Panetta will expand her role at the nonprofit Institute, which provides study opportunities in government, politics and public policy and sponsors a range of other activities. Among these is the popular Panetta Lecture Series. The list of participants reads like a Who’s Who of American movers and shakers: William Jefferson Clinton. Tom Brokaw. Newt Gingrich. James Carville. Tom Daschle. Until recently moderated by the urbane Panetta himself, discussions are lively, sometimes controversial, and always interesting.
“The Institute is Leon’s brainchild,” Mrs. Panetta says. “He was CEO; I was comparable to COO, managing day-to-day operations. Now I’m assuming both roles and I’m comfortable with that.”
Obama’s choice to head the spy agency raised a lot of eyebrows. Intelligence Committee Chair, Senator Diane Feinstein, noted that she thought “the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.” Carmel Mayor Sue McCloud doesn’t see the problem.
“The concerns of his not knowing the nuts and bolts of intelligence gathering are more than offset by the presence of Steve Kappes,” she says.
Kappes, CIA Deputy Director, is a career CIA officer who joined the Agency in 1981 and is well-versed in the operations of “The Company.” It’s a daunting and difficult job that requires gathering, processing and analyzing an enormous amount of information, in addition to liaising with other branches of government, including the occupants of his former place of business, the White House.“Leon refers to it as a fire hose of information,” remarks Mrs. Panetta. “But he always likes a challenge, to learn new things and give of himself.”
“The CIA is an agency that gathers and analyzes information,” she adds. “Its mission is to keep the USA safe. His job is to make sure that continues to happen.”
The career arc of Leon Panetta has been nothing short of astounding. He’s a first-generation American from what used to be a sleepy little coastal community who has comfortably walked the corridors of power of the world’s most powerful nation. Panetta rubs shoulders with and enjoys the respect of presidents and other world leaders and—perhaps most telling—he is held in high esteem by the community he loves.
One lecture remains in the 2009 Series: June 8 featuring General John P. Abizaid and George Tenet (the man who used to sit at Mr. Panetta’s desk at CIA headquarters). Both will be moderated by former CNN broadcaster Frank Sesno. For more information, go towww.panettainstitute.org.