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I had the preconceived and, it turns out, misguided notion that Panetta, who a year earlier had denounced torture, and who brought with him a wealth of experience and innumerable contacts on Capitol Hill and in the federal bureaucracy, would be not only determined, but also able, to clean up the mess at the CIA.
Moreover, I persuaded myself that I could expect from Panetta, a contemporary with the same education I received at the hands of the Jesuits including moral theology/ethics, might wear some insulation from power that corrupts.
I have learned, though, that no one is immune from the sirens of power, which is an alternative way to explain Panetta's actions over the past four years. As for Jesuits, there are justice Jesuits like Dan Berrigan -- and others like the ones that now run my alma mater Fordham.
The latter brand -- either knowingly, or out of what Church theologians call "invincible ignorance" -- seem to be happy riding shotgun for the system, including aggressive war, kidnapping, torture, the whole nine yards. (For a recent, insightful essay on this issue, see "Sticks and Drones, and Company Men: The Selective Outrage of the Liberal Caste," by Jim Kavanagh.)
To me, it was painful to watch Panetta make the decision to become the CIA's defense lawyer, rather than take charge as its director. He left in place virtually all those responsible for the "dark-side" abuses of the Cheney/Bush administration, and bent flexibly with the prevailing wind toward holding no one accountable.
Long forgotten is the fact that Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder initially gave some lip service to the concept of no one being above the law. Rhetoric is one thing, though; action another.
Counterattack on Torture
When Obama's timid Attorney General, Eric Holder, gathered the courage to begin an investigation of torture and other war crimes implicating CIA officials past and present, he ran into a buzzsaw operated by those inside the CIA and in key media outlets, like the neocon-dominated Washington Post. Those forces pulled out all the stops to quash the Department of Justice's preliminary investigation.
This effort reached bizarre proportions when seven previous CIA directors -- including three who were themselves implicated in planning and conducting torture and other abuses -- wrote to the President in September 2009, asking him to call off Holder. The letter and the motivation behind it could not have been more transparent or inappropriate.
Obama and Holder caved. By all accounts, Panetta supported the former directors who, in my view, deserve the sobriquet "the seven moral dwarfs."
Leon Panetta, like me, was commissioned in the U.S. Army when he graduated from college -- he from the University of Santa Clara (I from Fordham). Entering the Army may have been the first time each of us swore a solemn oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic," but it was hardly the last time.
Panetta, however, has displayed a willingness to disrespect the Constitution when it encumbers what the Obama administration wishes to do. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution reserves to Congress the power to declare or authorize war.
Granted, an unprecedentedly craven Congress has shown itself all too willing to abnegate that responsibility in recent years. Only a few members of the House and Senate seem to care very much when presidents act like kings and send off troops drawn largely from a poverty draft to wars not authorized (or simply rubber-stamped) by Congress. This sad state of affairs, however, does not absolve the Executive Branch from its duty to abide by Article 1, Section 8.
This matters -- and matters very much. At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, pursued this issue with Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. Chafing belatedly over the unauthorized nature of the war in Libya, Sessions asked repeatedly what "legal basis" would the Obama administration rely on to do in Syria what it did in Libya.
Watching that part of the testimony it seemed to me that Sessions, a conservative Southern lawyer, was not at all faking it when he pronounced himself "almost breathless" as Panetta stonewalled time after time. Panetta made it explicitly clear that the administration does not believe it needs to seek congressional approval for wars like the one in Libya in which the United States contributed air power and intelligence support, though not ground troops.
Sessions: "I am really baffled. ... The only legal authority that's required to deploy the U.S. military [in combat] is the Congress and the President and the law and the Constitution."
Panetta: "Let me just for the record be clear again, Senator, so there is no misunderstanding. When it comes to national defense, the President has the authority under the Constitution to act to defend this country, and we will, Sir." (Here is the entire 7-minute video clip.)