President Barack Obama damaged U.S. credibility by drawing a “red line” against Syria’s use of chemical weapons and then failing to back up the warning with military force, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Yahoo News in an interview.
“It was damaging,” Panetta, who also served Obama as CIA director, told Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric.
In the wide-ranging interview, Panetta also defended the CIA’s use of a vaccination campaign as cover for intelligence gathering on Osama bin Laden; said future presidents may again have to use interrogation techniques widely branded as torture; struggled to explain how the Islamic State’s top leader managed to go from a U.S.-run prison in Iraq to commanding that fearsome jihadi army; and grappled with what-if questions about what he candidly called the “chaos” in Syria.
Panetta said drawing the red line, threatening Syrian strongman Bashar Assad with military strikes if he unleashed chemical weapons on his people, was “the right thing to do.”
But once Obama did that, “then I think the credibility of the United States is on the line,” he said. Once the United States had proof that Assad used chemical weapons, killing 1,400 people, “then it was important for us to stand by our word and go in and do what a commander in chief should do.”
Obama shocked the world by asking Congress to vote to give him the authority to carry out airstrikes against Assad, a step lawmakers predictably refused to take.
The president then pulled back, which “sent a mixed message, not only to Assad, not only to the Syrians, but [also] to the world.,” Panetta said. “And that is something you do not want to establish in the world, an issue with regard to the credibility of the United States to stand by what we say we're gonna do.”
Panetta is promoting his new book, “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace" an insider’s account of national security disputes in the Obama administration.
In the book, Panetta straddles both sides of the national debate about waterboarding and other interrogation tactics that meet international definitions of torture. He agrees with Obama’s decision to end some of the most brutal practices but argues that they yielded valuable intelligence.
Asked by Couric whether he was now against using those methods under any circumstances, the former CIA chief left it up to future presidents.
“I agreed with the president that very frankly those do not really represent the kind of values that we have in this country,” Panetta said.
“Now, having said that if we were facing an imminent threat that really endangered this country, then I think the president of the United States as commander in chief…has the flexibility and the power to be able to do whatever is necessary in order to protect this country,” he said.
Panetta unapologetically defended the CIA’s use of a vaccination campaign in Pakistan to collect information about bin Laden’s whereabouts.
“When it comes to intelligence, you have to be able to use whatever you can to be able to get the kind of information you need, particularly when it involves our No. 1 enemy, Osama Bin Laden,” he said.
Disclosure of the operation led to a spate of deadly attacks on aid workers in Pakistan. It also prompted many Pakistani parents to reject vaccines for common and deadly illnesses like polio.
“I have no regrets for trying everything we could to make sure that we knew where he was located,” Panetta said. Would you do it again, Couric asked. “Absolutely.”
But the former defense secretary sounded less sure-footed when asked how the United States could release the future leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from a U.S-run detention facility in Iraq in 2009.
“I don't know, you know, the circumstances as to why,” he said. “At the time there were obviously a lot of prisoners that were there,” he said.
“But I think it's important for us when we have somebody like this that we never lose sight of this and these kinds of individuals because they are really single-minded in what they want to do against the United States,” Panetta said.
Turning to dysfunction in Washington, Panetta warned that “if things don't change from the top down, make no mistake about it, they will change from the bottom up."
Panetta continued: “The American people will say, ‘enough is enough’” and over “the next number of years” voters will “make changes in terms of our leadership that will say, ‘We want people that are willing to take the risks necessary in order to make sure that we govern.’"
Watch the complete interview: