“Worthy Fights is Panetta’s addition to the Cabinet bookshelf, and it’s very readable, with the frank descriptions of personalities and events that distinguish this genre at its best.” —The Washington Post
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I was thrilled, but I did not presume it meant anything for me. I was seventy years old and retired from government service, running the Panetta Institute in Monterey with my wife, Sylvia. So it was without much thought of the future that Sylvia and I visited our son Carmelo in Minneapolis over New Year’s. We were enjoying our grandchildren when Rahm Emanuel, who had been appointed Obama’s chief of staff, called to sound me out on an idea: “What would you think about being considered for director of CIA?”
“I don’t know, Rahm,” I answered. “Most of my work has been on budgets. Are you sure you have the right guy?”
He acknowledged that it was unconventional, but that Obama was convinced the CIA needed a fresh start. The agency was a vital institution whose officers had labored furiously since 9/11 to protect against another attack, but it also had troubles. At the direction of the Bush administration, the CIA built secret prisons and engaged in a practice known as “rendition.” Even more controversial, the administration sanctioned enhanced interrogation techniques—the worst of which, waterboarding, was criticized as tantamount to torture.
On Sunday, January fourth, I attended Mass with Carmelo and prayed for guidance. We then headed to the Vikings game—they lost to the Eagles—and as we were leaving, Sylvia called Carmelo’s cell phone to let me know that the president-elect was looking for me. I hustled back to our hotel.
He immediately proffered the job: “I’d like you to be CIA director.”
“Mr. President,” I said, “my experience with the CIA director is that this is the person who has to provide you with very objective intelligence. If I took this, I’d feel an obligation to tell you the truth, no matter how uncomfortable.”
He acknowledged that and said he would expect nothing less. Right answer, I thought, and I continued, describing briefly my experience at the Office of Civil Rights, where my determination to do my job had offended the Nixon administration and led to my firing in 1970. Surprising me, Obama interjected that he knew the story.
“I remember that,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I want you to do this, to restore the credibility of the CIA.”
With that, I agreed, hung up, and paused a moment to reflect. It had been a little over seventy-five years since my father, an Italian peasant, had arrived at Ellis Island with twenty-five dollars to his name. The United States had welcomed him. And now the newly elected president of that same nation was placing me atop the world’s premier intelligence service. It is a great country that makes such a life possible.