A priest and a rabbi want to learn more about each other's beliefs, so they attend a boxing match. One of the boxers goes to the corner and makes the sign of the cross. The rabbi sees this and asks the priest, “What does that mean?” The priest responds, “Not a damn thing, if he can’t fight.” (It’s much funnier when spoken.)
Overall, Panetta said all the right things. He is against “enhanced interrogation techniques” aka torture (he said the CIA uses the Army Field Manual on interrogations). He thinks the media is doing Americans a disservice through its soundbite-style reporting (and even took a jab at Fox news, saying that the media panders to the lowest common denominator because they don’t want to be “outfoxed.”) In any case, here are the highlights of Panetta's speech as I saw them:
In D.C., “gridlock is the order of the day.”
Panetta singled out Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as hotbeds of terrorism. He said that Pakistan had nuclear weapons and Al-Qaeda leaders.
He said India was an emerging power but will have to deal with its poverty problem [which may limit its ascendancy].
He said, “My job is to tell the truth,” whether they [the White House and Congress] like to hear it or not.
The CIA has four basic missions: counter-terrorism (CT); counter-proliferation; cyber-security; and minimizing the risk of surprise.
One interesting quote: “We are conducting a war within Pakistan.”
“Security and stability are our top priorities.”
On nuclear proliferation, “all we need is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” he said with an exasperated tone.
He singled out North Korea as an active proliferator that shares nuclear technology with other countries. He also mentioned Iran's nuclear program, but didn't provide much detail other than mentioning it as a potential catalyst for a nuclear arms race.
On cyber-security, Panetta singled out China and Russia as potential threats. He said the “next Pearl Harbor could be a cyberattack” that shuts down our power grid or financial system. He said we experience hundreds of thousands of cyberattacks each year.
Panetta also went on several tangents, mentioning the Mexican drug cartels, which have killed 15,000 people, and the rising power of Brazil and India.
He told us that “we do not have to choose between law and security,” but “at the same time, we cannot be free unless we are secure.”
Panetta said the CIA’s budget has “tripled” since 9/11, which was cause for concern. He said such growth and unchecked expenditures “frankly scared the hell out of” him. (Prior to becoming Director, Panetta spent years on the House Budget Committee trying to balance the federal budget.)
Panetta has reduced the CIA’s reliance on outside contractors (I believe he said the CIA has reduced its reliance on contractors by around "20%," but I couldn't quite make out the specific context, and I'm sure there are many different kinds of contractors, so the 20% number may not be very helpful to anyone).
Panetta has made knowledge of a foreign language a requirement to advance within the CIA. His goal is to “be diverse,” and he wants to increase the CIA’s overall diversity from 23% overall to 30%.
Panetta said the CIA’s basic goal is “convincing people to risk their lives to give us information–that is what it is all about.” If we can’t protect them [the assets], he said, no one will want to work with us (later, he criticized WikiLeaks because some of the documents released contained names).
Panetta also said the President of the United States signs off on all covert operations, and the CIA's decisions are also reviewed by the Attorney General as well as overseen by Congress [see Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence]. He went out of his way to say that the CIA keeps the President and Congress apprised of all operations.
He said that over half of the CIA’s workforce was hired post-9/11.
During the short Q&A session, Panetta criticized the media, saying its quality has declined because of soundbites and increased competition (this is where he made the comment about the general media not wanting to be “outfoxed”).
Panetta said the CIA had no excuse for not having oversight over [outside] contractors. He also said that certain security details were outsourced because certain agencies don't have designated security personnel. (I think he mentioned protection for certain Afghan politicians and State Department personnel, but don't quote me on this.)
Panetta lamented the state of modern politics, indicating that the goal ought to be consensus, but now politicians care more about surviving in office. Panetta said we can “govern by leadership or [by] crisis,” and right now, we are governing by crisis.
As I left the speech, I realized I had listened to a series of bromides. For example, Panetta left out the CIA’s role in extraordinary renditions. While Panetta said we should not look backwards to the Bush administration’s mistakes, he also didn’t say anything about how the CIA sought to avoid similar debacles. My own personal experience regarding FOIA requests was markedly different with the CIA than it was with the FBI–even though both were providing me information pursuant to the exact same federal law.
At the end of the day, Mr. Panetta is just one individual, just like President Obama is just one individual. My feeling is that Americans keep looking for one person to change things, but our form of government is anti-royalty and therefore one person’s power–though vast–is still limited. We need to move away from a "single individual" mentality and try to elect people who are comfortable delegating power and who will create changes from the bottom up. If this decade is any indication, it appears that one person can make a difference on the negative side, but not so much on the positive side.