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Interview: Monterey’s Leon Panetta On Public Service, Bin Laden, Congress Inaction

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Leon Panetta. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Leon Panetta. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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MONTEREY (KPIX 5) – After spending 16 years in Congress, along with stints as director of the Office of Management and Budget, White House Chief of Staff, CIA Director, and – most recently – Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta says it has been “a hell of a ride, as they say, for the son of Italian immigrants.”

Panetta sat in the lobby of the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute on the campus of California State University Monterey Bay and explained why he’s spent almost 50 years in Washington. “I am a sucker for challenges and because when you have dedicated your life for public service it’s really hard to say ‘no’ when the President of the United States asks you to do something that he believes can serve the country.”

Panetta has strong criticism for the lawmakers he left behind inside the beltway. “In the 50 years that I have been in and out of Washington, I have never seen Washington as bad as it is today in terms of partisanship and meanness and the inability of the institution to respond to the needs of this country.”

He is especially critical of the sequester budget cuts that he warned against before leaving the Pentagon a few weeks ago. Panetta said the cuts will jeopardize the U.S. troop presence in the Middle East, where the Panetta believes the U.S. needs to be able to respond more quickly.

Congress simply isn’t doing its job, according to Panetta. “You know what the national security threat that we face? The biggest national security issue we face is not our weapons, is not our men in uniform, they are the best. The biggest national security threat we face is a dysfunctional Congress in Washington. That is the biggest threat we face to our country’s security.”

Panetta has had to defend his expanded use of drone aircraft to target and kill terror suspects.

“We have to be transparent about what we are doing so that the American people know what capabilities we have. But we not ought to use that as an excuse to give up something that effectively protects our country and goes after our enemies.”

When asked whether his number one job as CIA director was to get Osama bin Laden, Panetta said “I think one of the first meetings I had with the President of the United States, he said ‘I want you to focus on getting bin Laden.'”

Panetta has seen the film ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and spoke to actor James Gandolfini who portrayed Panetta as CIA director. Panetta said he told him “I am glad that at least an Italian played my role. And (Gandolfini) said ‘I was worried about the swearing’ and I said ‘that is the one thing you did get right in the movie.’ You know, its a good movie but it’s not… you cannot capture all of the work that was done.”

Panetta has barely had a chance to get back to work at his institute in Monterey, but when asked whether there could be yet another return to Washington, perhaps a Hillary Clinton – Leon Panetta presidential ticket he said, “as far as I am concerned that is what public service is all about and its about committing to give our children a better life and if I can do that in whatever capacity, I will continue to do that.”

Which doesn’t sound like he’s ruling anything out.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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