The president’s White House staff was controlling, insular, and often ignored the advice of its senior national security officials, former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta charges in his yet-to-be-released memoir. The result, Panetta says: botched U.S. policies from Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan.
Panetta—whose new book, Worthy Fights, is set to be released Oct. 7—is particularly tough on his former boss on the issue of Syria. (A copy of the book was obtained by The Daily Beast.) President Obama had called the use of chemical weapons there a “red line.” So when the Syrian military used chemical weapons in August 2013 to kill an estimated 1,400 people, Obama decided to strike. But then the president abruptly reversed himself—without consulting his national security Cabinet members.
The U.S. eventually secured an agreement to hold off on any attacks in exchange for Assad handing over his chemical weapons. But that deal was a mistake, according to Panetta.
“The result, I felt, was a blow to American credibility. When the president as commander in chief draws a red line, it is critical that he act if the line is crossed. The power of the United States rests on its word,” he wrote. “Assad’s action clearly defied President Obama’s warning; by failing to respond, it sent the wrong message to the world.”
Panetta also noted that Obama overruled him and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when the president decided not to arm the Syrian rebels—an admittedly risky proposition—in 2012. The current ghastly situation in Syria shows the results of the White House’s policy, he wrote.
“Hesitation and half steps have consequences as well—and those remain to be determined,” Panetta said.
Throughout the book, Panetta repeats that senior White House staffers, such as National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, then-Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, and Deputy National Security Advisor Dennis McDonough (who later became Chief of Staff) had more influence and control over national security policy than senior officials such as him and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“There was nothing wrong with that, but that did have the effect of reducing the importance of the Cabinet members who actually oversaw their agencies,” Panetta stated. “Those agency heads were rarely encouraged to take their own initiative or lobby for priorities.”
When Panetta was the CIA director, the White House discouraged him from dealing directly with lawmakers or giving public speeches or interviews at all. “In fact, several times when I reached out to Congress or the press without prior White House approval, I was chastised for it,” he said.
Multiple times in his memoir, Panetta compares the ineffectiveness of the Obama White House to the relative competence of the Clinton White House, in which he served as OMB Director and then Chief of Staff. For example, the White House left him alone in 2011 to fight against over half a trillion dollars in cuts to the defense budget, known as sequestration.
“To my amazement, the rest of the Cabinet, including the members responsible for those parts of the budget, largely stayed out of the debate. That left me to argue for all of us, which I tried to do, even when I found myself frustratingly alone,” Panetta wrote. “In some way that was symptomatic of what I regarded as a problem with President Obama’s use of his Cabinet. Far more than in previous administrations that I’d witnessed—certainly more than in Clinton’s when I’d been near the center of the action—President Obama’s decision-making apparatus was centralized in the White House.”
The White House senior staffers clashed with Panetta and Hillary Clinton once again in 2012 when the Taliban offered to release the only American soldier in their custody, Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for five senior Taliban commanders being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I opposed the swap for several reasons. First, I did not believe the Taliban were sincere in their efforts to reconcile with the Afghan government; they were, after all, attacking our forces on the field of battle. Second, I did not believe it was fair to trade five for one,” Panetta wrote. “Secretary Clinton and I—and others—did not think we could proceed, and as much as we wanted to bring Sergeant Bergdahl home and reunite him with his family, the deal evaporated.”
The 2012 deal fell apart, but the White House led a new negotiation that resulted in a deal in the summer of 2014. The trade was still five for one, but this time it was not linked to a broader plan for Afghan reconciliation, as it had been the first time around. Panetta noted that American law had to be changed to weaken the assurances given by the Qatari government that the Taliban would be kept out of the fight going forward.
“The bigger issue is: Is this a good deal for the security interests of the United States? That depends entirely on the assurance that we received and whether in fact these five very bad men are prevented from returning to the fight,” he wrote.
The President and top national security aides learned early on not to trust those who were brought into the leadership from outside Obama’s tight inner circle, Panetta said. The two military leaders he took risks on to be his first National Security Advisor and Director of National Intelligence, Gen. Jim Jones and Adm. Dennis Blair, were a bust. Panetta was no fan of Blair, whom he called his “notional boss” inside the intelligence community.
“Obama did something I’m sure he came to regret. Instead of relying on close advisors for his top national security positions, he reached for two seasoned military men he did not know well, Jim Jones and Dennis Blair,” Panetta wrote. “In time, Obama would undo both of these personnel moves.”
In 2009, the uniformed military tried to box Obama into surging more troops into Afghanistan than he wanted but presented him with two extreme, unworkable options and only one semi-plausible option, the addition of 40,000 new troops. The president decided to commit 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan, but vowed to never again let himself get out-maneuvered by the military.
As recounted in a book excerpt in Time, Panetta believed the White House didn’t want to keep troops in Iraq after 2011 and didn’t support Pentagon and State Department efforts to negotiate a follow-up Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government.
“I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military,” Panetta wrote. “But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle] Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
Panetta leavens his critiques of Obama with kind words for the president. In the book, Panetta praises for Obama as a leader who turned around a deep recession, ended Bush-era interrogation policies, enabled gays to serve openly in the military, and used American military power to pursue terrorists around the world. He portrays Obama as a deliberate and careful decision maker who is somewhat confounded by circumstances inside Washington and around the world he can’t control.
“President Obama revamped a nearly broken economy, waged an aggressive campaign against terrorism, extricated the United States from two wars, and refocused the mission of our military; the result is a safer nation and a more prosperous one,” Panetta writes.
Overall, the Panetta book has few new revelations. The long-serving public official traces his life from his childhood, growing up the son of two Italian immigrant restaurant owners in Monterey, California, to his time as a congressman, Clinton administration official, and then top Obama administration Cabinet member. Panetta defends the CIA and its use of drones abroad. He decries the dysfunction of modern Washington and Congress’ abdication of its responsibilities. He lays out in detail what’s known about the search for and mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
In one previously unreported anecdote, Panetta had prepared to tell a joke at the Gridiron Club comparing the Obama administration’s killing of bin Laden to Dick Cheney’s accidental shooting of his friend, but scratched it because Cheney was in poor health at the time.
“Looking back on my career, I’ve been a Republican, a congressman, and White House chief of staff, and a defense secretary,” Panetta had prepared to say. “Come to think of it, I’ve done everything that Dick Cheney has done. Except the guy I made sure got shot in the face was Osama bin Laden.”