Outspoken Panetta Returns From Iraq, Afghanistan

Originally published on July 15, 2011 12:29 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

We've been reporting this week on Leon Panetta's very first trip as secretary of Defense. It was a quick, in-and-out trip to both Afghanistan and Iraq. But it was long enough for the newly minted secretary to make quite an impression. His trip was punctuated with rough and tumble rhetoric like this, when he was talking with U.S. troops in Baghdad about his last job as CIA director.

LOUISE KELLY: One of the proudest moments I've had is the ability to put together the plan to go after bin Laden and to get that son of a (bleep).

LOUISE KELLY: NPR's national security correspondent Rachel Martin was on that trip. And Rachel, as people may have gathered from that bleep we just heard, his language was pretty salty. I gather that was a theme on this trip.

RACHEL MARTIN: One of the most memorable moments, Mary Louise, was in Iraq. And he was talking about Iraq's inability to make a decision on whether or not they want the U.S. to stay in that country beyond the 2011 deadline. Take a listen to what he said.

LOUISE KELLY: I'd like things to move a lot faster here, frankly, in terms of the decision-making process. I'd like them to make a decision - you know, they want us to stay, don't they want us to stay. You know, they want to have, you know - get a minister of defense, or don't they want to get a minister of defense. But damn it, make a decision.

MARTIN: Also referencing Iraq's inability to appoint a minister of defense. You can tell, he's a little frustrated only a little over a week on the job.

LOUISE KELLY: And that is very different from the things you would've heard coming out of Secretary Gates' mouth when he made these sort of trips abroad.

MARTIN: Secretary Panetta, different story. He was kind of wandering around, chatting folks up. One morning, he just sat down and had breakfast across from me and seemed much more open to talking informally, unscripted, with the press.

LOUISE KELLY: You know, it almost makes you wonder if Secretary Panetta is making up for lost time. I mean, he would've been on a very short leash in his old job at the CIA. Is what we're seeing now Leon Panetta unplugged?

MARTIN: And you know, he could be forthright with the CIA employees - often was, it's what endeared him to them. But it's a lot different than speaking in the spotlight and being in the public eye. All of a sudden, he's back. And you can kind of tell, he's into it.

LOUISE KELLY: Now, there is a downside, though, to being forthright, which is he made a few blunders on this trip.

MARTIN: And again in Iraq, another controversial remark in Baghdad. He said that the reason that U.S. troops are in Iraq is because of the 9/11 terrorists attacks. Reporters jumped all over that because that sounded an awful lot like language that the Bush administration used to justify the war in Iraq. And again, the acting press secretary had to come out and make some clarifications, which is pretty rare for someone to have to do.

LOUISE KELLY: Rachel, thanks so much.

MARTIN: You're very welcome.

LOUISE KELLY: That's NPR's Rachel Martin, just back from covering Leon Panetta's first trip as secretary of Defense. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.