January 18th, 2015
01:31 PM ET

Leon Panetta: Obama "missed an opportunity to show solidarity"

CNN’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS features an interview with former Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Fareed Zakaria spoke to Panetta about the recent terror attacks throughout Europe, the Obama Administration’s reaction, and the means of preventing future threats.

TEXT HIGHLIGHTS

Panetta on the U.S. absence in Paris: “To the credit of the White House, they admitted that they had made a mistake, and it was a mistake, because we missed an opportunity to show solidarity with the leadership - leadership in the world that is confronting this terrorism threat that we all face.  So it was a missed opportunity. We should have had, if not the president, certainly the vice president or the secretary of state should have attended. As far as what went on in the White House, all I can say is when I - when I was chief of staff, the national security adviser and the chief of staff usually presented these kinds of issues directly to the president, and the president then made the ultimate decision as to what happened.”

 Panetta on the terror attacks in Paris: “You know, I think that what we've seen happening over these last few weeks, between what happened in Ottawa, what's happened in Paris and now what's happened in Belgium, is that we're entering a new and perhaps more dangerous chapter in the war on terrorism. You've got terrorists coming at us from a lot of different directions - from ISIS, from Boko Haram, from Al-Shabab, from AQAP, from other elements of al Qaeda. They are recruiting like crazy from these various wars in Syria and Iraq, in Yemen. And they seem to be involved in more planning and more weapons in terms of the types of attacks that they're working on. So I think it's pretty clear from what we're seeing that we are entering a more threatening and more dangerous period in this war on terrorism.”

Panetta on French intelligence: “Well, there's no question that, I think, the failure to be able to have prevented the attack that took place in Paris was an intelligence failure. And I know they had these individuals on watch lists. I know that, in some ways, they were tracking them, but because of priorities or because of resources, obviously, they were not aware that these attacks were going to be conducted.”

Full transcript after the jump.

TRANSCRIPT
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: You've heard my take on what will not thwart the terror threat. Now's let's hear a most expert opinion on what will.

Leon Panetta has been many things in many administrations, but the most pertinent today is his two-plus years as director of central intelligence - from February 2009 to June 2011.

He talked to me exclusively earlier this week. I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and he was at the Panetta Institute near Monterey Bay.

//

ZAKARIA: Secretary Panetta, thanks for joining us.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nice to be with you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: When you first heard about these attacks, what was your thought?

PANETTA: You know, I think that what we've seen happening over these last few weeks, between what happened in Ottawa, what's happened in Paris and now what's happened in Belgium, is that we're entering a new and perhaps more dangerous chapter in the war on terrorism.

You've got terrorists coming at us from a lot of different directions - from ISIS, from Boko Haram, from Al-Shabab, from AQAP, from other elements of al Qaeda. They are recruiting like crazy from these various wars in Syria and Iraq, in Yemen. And they seem to be involved in more planning and more weapons in terms of the types of attacks that they're working on.

So I think it's pretty clear from what we're seeing that we are entering a more threatening and more dangerous period in this war on terrorism.

ZAKARIA: From the point of view of policing, you know, looking at it from a city like New York or Washington or London or Paris' perspective, what can you do?

These are locals. They often have local passports and they have - seem to have radicalized kind of themselves in some ways. They've gotten a bit of training.

How do you deal with this kind of a threat?

PANETTA: You have to be very aggressive in confronting this – this more dangerous threat in terms of terrorism.

You have to do it with increasing our basic intelligence, because obviously, whether it's human intelligence or technical intelligence, getting the right intelligence gives you at least a chance to avoid these kinds of attacks.

Secondly, I think we have to continue to stress our counterterrorism operations, both our intelligence operations, our Special Forces operations, to be able to use our capabilities to target their leadership and their command and control.

And thirdly, you've got to build partnerships with the countries abroad that are confronting terrorism.

We've got to be able to share intelligence, share operations, and be able to work together to go after this broad array of threats, because these individuals, as they come back, I think, you know, we're - we're probably in a pretty good position, with our watch lists and with our defenses that have been set up to be able to check them.

But the problem is in Europe, that - there frankly is a, you know, a greater capability to be able to move from country to country without being detected. So somehow, working with other countries, we have got to be able to share intelligence and improve our capability to track these foreign nationals that, in one way or another, are coming back to these countries and trying to conduct these attacks.

ZAKARIA: What was your sense of the quality of French intelligence? I mean one often hears that not only are they pretty good, but they're pretty aggressive. Would that be your sense?

PANETTA: Well, there's no question that, I think, the failure to be able to have prevented the attack that took place in Paris was an intelligence failure. And I know they had these individuals on watch lists. I know that, in some ways, they were tracking them, but because of priorities or because of resources, obviously, they were not aware that these attacks we're going to be conducted.

I do believe, in certainly my dealings with the French, that they have good capabilities in terms of their intelligence. They have good capabilities in terms of their law enforcement to be able to go after these individuals.

So I believe that - that there is a good opportunity here to learn from the mistakes that have been made and try to improve our intelligence gathering capability and intelligence sharing capability to make sure that we try to get ahead of these kinds of attacks.

ZAKARIA: There are a lot of people who feel that the United States does not face quite the same danger, partly because, as you say, we've got oceans and watch lists, but also because the Muslim population in the United States is much more thoroughly assimilated than in - than in Europe. Would you agree with that?

PANETTA: Well, you know, I think, obviously, that since 9/11, we have done a very good job of being able to improve our intelligence gathering capabilities, our law enforcement capabilities, our intelligence in terms of being able to track the particular threats that are out there. And clearly our Muslim population has the opportunity to become citizens in this country, to integrate more fully into our society. And that gives us an advantage.

But having said that, the reality is that when these foreign nationals are able to come back into our country - and there are thousands of these nationals that are overseas in Syria and Iraq, in Yemen - I think it still represents a real danger in terms of the United States.

I don't think we can take anything for granted. I think we are dealing with a much more aggressive form of terrorism coming at us in a number of different directions, as I said. And the United States ought to continue to remain very vigilant and very aggressive in going after this kind of terrorism.

ZAKARIA: Would you expand the no-fly list, the watch lists? Would you put in place new procedures for even more intrusive intelligence, intelligence gathering?

PANETTA: You know, you - one thing I learned as CIA director is that you can always improve what you're doing in terms of being able to develop, not only the lists, but develop the intelligence that is needed in order to make sure that we're able to track these individuals.

I mean, we do have the watch list. We have pretty good security with regards to those coming into this country. We're - I think we have a good capability there.

The problem is in dealing with those in the various European areas where there is, frankly, less aggressiveness at going after these individuals when they return.

So the real challenge here is going to be for the United States to work very closely with our counterparts in Europe to make sure that these watch lists are shared, that we are working together to make sure that these individuals are being tracked when they try to come back into our - to the various countries, and that we work together operationally to be able to go after them once that happens.

So there is room for a great deal of improvement here in order to make sure that we're at the top of our game in terms of trying to protect our country.

ZAKARIA: But you’re saying that the French, and I've heard that the Germans, are really - I mean, to put it bluntly, too soft on these potential terrorists.

PANETTA: I think that - that the European countries, you know, particularly in light of the attacks that we've seen, understand that it is extremely important for them to work together to try to provide good intelligence, good security, good defenses here to try to deal with these threats.

We cannot do this alone. The United States can't do this alone. We've got to be working with our partners, both in Europe and, frankly, the intelligence services in Germany and France and Britain, in other countries, are, you know, they're very capable and we have worked closely together. We share intelligence together. And I'm sure we're continuing to do that.

But we also have to work with the moderate Arab countries as well - countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Jordan, others that maintain good intelligence, Egypt. The ability for those countries to work together with the intelligence operations in the United States and in these other countries - if you can form that kind of strong coalition, you can really develop the kind of defense capability we need if we're going to confront this myriad threat that we're facing now.

//

ZAKARIA: When we come back, I'm going to ask Leon Panetta much more about the Paris attacks and the aftermath. I'm going to ask him whether President Obama should have gone to that rally.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

ZAKARIA: And we are back with Leon Panetta, former secretary of Defense, former director of the CIA.

Secretary Panetta, a lot of people have criticized President Obama for not attending that Paris rally. What do you think was going on? How did they make that mistake?

PANETTA: Well, Fareed, to the credit of the White House, they admitted that they had made a mistake, and it was a mistake, because we missed an opportunity to show solidarity with the leadership - leadership in the world that is confronting this terrorism threat that we all face. So it was a missed opportunity.

We should have had, if not the president, certainly the vice president or the secretary of state should have attended.

As far as what went on in the White House, all I can say is when I - when I was chief of staff, the national security adviser and the chief of staff usually presented these kinds of issues directly to the president, and the president then made the ultimate decision as to what happened.

Whether or not that happened here, I just don't know.

ZAKARIA: President Obama has himself said that he spends a lot of time trying to get the policy right, but sometimes doesn't think enough about the optics.

Do you think this was one of those cases?

PANETTA: Well, you know, as we all know, the presidency is not just about policy and substance, it's also about the optics of leadership. All of those elements are part of what makes the president able to provide the kind of leadership that is necessary.

This president, certainly during the time when I was there, was fully committed to supporting the war against terrorism. He supported what we were doing at the CIA and certainly supported what we were doing at the Defense Department.

So he clearly understands the nature of the threat. I think it's really important that the president, working with other countries, working in solidarity with other countries, provide a common front that makes very clear to the terrorist threat that we're dealing with that they are not going to succeed and that we will ultimately achieve the kind of victory we have to achieve with regards to this war on terrorism.

ZAKARIA: It sounds like, Secretary Panetta, you are more worried, based on what has happened over the last few weeks, particularly in Paris, and you feel that, you know, this could happen in New York, this could happen in many, many places in the world.

PANETTA: I don't - I don't think there's any question. I think - I think what we're seeing, as I said, is a much more aggressive chapter and a much more dangerous chapter in terms of the war on terrorism. And what has happened in Paris, what happened in Ottawa, what has happened in Belgium, is something that we need to understand - that these terrorists are now engaged in a much more aggressive effort, based on their recruiting, based on what's happening in Syria and Iraq and Yemen. They are engaged in a much more aggressive effort to conduct violence, not only in Europe, but I think it's a matter of time before they direct it at the United States, as well.

This is a real threat and we've got to be prepared to confront that.

ZAKARIA: Leon Panetta, pleasure to have you on, sir.

PANETTA: Thank you very much, Fareed.

### END ###


Topics: Fareed Zakaria • Fareed Zakaria GPS • ISIS
tmpl
soundoff (No Responses)

Comments are closed.