06/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CIA Chief Panetta on Israel and Iran, Drone Strikes in Pakistan, Congress, and Torture

Earlier this week, the surprising new director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, eight-term Congressman and former Clinton White House chief of staff, was back in California to tour the high-tech satellite and missile-industrial complex of southern California. He took a lunch break to talk with the Pacific Council on International Policy. Here are a few interesting things he said to me and to other members of the Pacific Council:

On Israel Attacking Iran

Noting that he visited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu three weeks ago to warn Israel not to take unilateral action against Iran's nuclear program while the US was trying to engage the Islamic Republic with diplomacy, I asked if he felt assured by Netanyahu's response. "Yes," Panetta said. "The Israelis are obviously concerned about Iran and focused on it. But he understands that if Israel goes it alone it will mean trouble. He knows that for the sake of Israeli security they have to work with others."

The CIA chief also re-affirmed the agency's controversial assessment in the waning days of the Bush administration that Iran had paused for the moment in its effort to build a nuclear weapon:

The judgment of the US intelligence community is that Iran, at a minimum, is keeping open the option to develop deliverable nuclear weapons. It is our judgment that Iran halted weaponization in 2003, but it continues to develop uranium enrichment technology and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Assessing Iran's intentions is therefore a top priority. It is not an easy intelligence target. Our main focus is getting an accurate picture of its capabilities.

On the Drone Attacks in Pakistan

During his opening comments to the Pacific Council, Panetta said that the CIA's primary mission was "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaida." The success of efforts so far, he declared, could be measured by their search for new safe havens in Yemen and Somalia. In particular, he argued that the policy of remote control drone strikes along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was a success:

Serious pressures have been brought to bear on Al Qaida's leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas. There is ample evidence that our strategy is in fact working. We do not expect to let up on that strategy. I'm convinced that our efforts are seriously disrupting every operation that Al Qaida is trying to conduct; it is interfering with their ability to establish plans to come at this country.

Others, such as David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency expert who advised General Petraeus in Iraq, don't see it that way. I asked Panetta what he thought of Kilcullen's case that the drone strikes have killed only 14 operatives while killing 700 civilians, thus causing an anti-American backlash in Pakistan more than disrupting Al Qaida.

His response:

These are covert, secret operations. So I can't go into particulars. Suffice it to say that the operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of hitting targets with a minimum of collateral damage. Sometimes critics sweep [casualties] from other less- precise operations, for example F-16 jet strikes, that go into these areas and can cause collateral damage. In discussing this, I sometimes find that the numbers are mixed together. But I assure you that in terms of our strategy it is very precise and very limited in terms of collateral damage. And, very frankly, it is the only game in town in terms of trying to disrupt the Al Qaida leadership.

The question that has pre-occupied the Obama administration since the Taliban and its allies took over Swat and invaded Buner, not all that far from Islamabad, is the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. When I last interviewed Pakistani president Musharraf in 2004, he told me that "Pakistan's nuclear assets are more secure than those in the former Soviet Union." I asked the current CIA chief if he concurred. He did, kind of.

"With respect to Pakistan's nuclear weapons, we do try to understand where these are located," he said. " We don't, frankly, have intelligence about where they are all located. But right now we are confident that the Pakistanis have a pretty secure approach to try to protect these weapons. This is something we will continue to watch very closely. Obviously, the last thing we want is to for the Taliban someday to have access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons."

On Investigating Bush-Era Torture

Several members of the Pacific Council asked whether the new CIA director felt it was important to draw a line in the sand against future uses of torture by outing past practices and practitioners in some way, including Congressional investigations. The spy chief's position is clearly determined by where he now stands. Without ever using the words waterboarding, torture or even abuse, he made his plea:

There are many in the US Congress today who want to focus on the past. I don't deny the importance of learning the lessons of that period. And as someone who was a member of the US Congress for eight terms, I believe in the oversight role and power of the legislative branch. But in looking at past practices we have to be very careful we don't forget our responsibilities to the present and the future. We are a nation at war. We have to confront that reality every day. We cannot therefore examine the past in a way that becomes so politically divisive that it interferes with our capabilities to stay focused on those who would threaten the U.S. today and tomorrow.

Whatever the CIA does it will do so in a way that upholds the Constitution and values that America stands for. I deeply believe, as President Obama does, that we do not have to make a choice between our values and our safety. Our responsibility is not only to protect our shores, but to protect a government of, by and for the people.

(C) Global Viewpoint Network

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?