Leon Panetta: The terminator

As America's spymaster-in-chief, he directed the counter-terrorism coup to end them all – killing Osama bin Laden. Now, at 73, he's taking on an even tougher job, running the US military machine

You're almost 73. You've spent close on half a century in politics and government service, culminating with a spell as CIA director in which you've remade that discredited and deeply demoralised intelligence agency and pulled off the anti-terrorism coup to end them all.

If ever there's a moment to pack your bags and ride off into the sunset, this surely is it. Not, though, if you're Leon Panetta. You agree to take on an even tougher job at the Pentagon, making you the oldest incoming Secretary of Defence in American history.

Victory has many fathers, and those basking in the glory of hunting down Osama bin Laden range from a Democratic President transformed from wimp and vacillator into a lion of national security, to the crack commando unit whose raid on the compound in Abbottabad adds yet more lustre to the legend of US special forces. But not least, this was Panetta's triumph.

His long career has led him in many directions: from Republican to Democrat, from civil rights enforcement to Congress, from running the US federal budget to a vital spell as White House chief of staff when he, more than anyone perhaps, put the disorderly Clinton presidency back on the rails.

Nothing, though, can have quite prepared him for the moment on 1 May as he talked Barack Obama and his national security team, assembled in the White House Situation Room, through the nail-biting climax of the operation. True, it was executed by Navy Seals, ultimately part of the Pentagon. But since that terrible day in September 2001, the search for Bin Laden was led by the CIA – and whether by dumb luck or perfect judgement, Panetta was the man in charge when everything finally came together.

If there is such a thing as "the American Dream", Panetta is a prime specimen. He was born to immigrants from Siderno in deepest Calabria (which should dispel any lingering belief that all those in the US of recent southern Italian extraction end up as opera singers or mobsters). In fact, his father ran a restaurant near Monterey in California before buying a walnut farm in the Carmel Valley nearby. The son still owns the same house, the same farm.

Few are more determined to get ahead than a first-generation American. Panetta excelled at school, took a law degree and served with distinction for two years in the US army. In 1966, he entered politics as a moderate Republican (yes, such creatures existed then), signing up as an aide for Senator Thomas Kuchel of California, a leading Republican supporter of LBJ's civil rights legislation.

It was a natural step, therefore, to switch to the incoming Nixon administration, and in 1970 Panetta was appointed head of the Office of Civil Rights, with the job of making sure the historic laws passed under Johnson were properly enforced. Then Nixon made the cynical move that would turn American politics on its head, by promising lawmakers from the South that he would go easy on enforcement in their states. Thus was born the "Southern Strategy" that transformed the old Confederacy from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold.

For Panetta it was too much. He decided to disobey Nixon's unspoken edict. In politics "there has to be a line beyond which you don't go", he said years later, "the line that marks the difference between right and wrong, what your conscience tells you is right". Panetta had no doubt where that line ran. In 1970, he resigned, and the following year, convinced the Republicans were moving too far to the right, he switched to the Democrats.

In 1973 Panetta was elected to Congress, representing his home turf of Monterey. On Capitol Hill, some in his new party were suspicious of the turncoat, but Panetta's charm and competence quickly won them over – indeed, to this day, it is hard to find a soul in Washington who personally dislikes him. Panetta is a straight shooter, with a slightly old-fashioned sense of morality. But he has an easy manner, an infectious laugh and a rare lack of self-importance.

He was also a pragmatist ready to work with Republicans, and as chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee had a big hand in the 1990 budget deal restoring the national finances. It was thus small surprise that Bill Clinton enlisted Panetta as his first federal budget director, but he stayed only a year. Panetta's managerial skills were urgently required as the president's chief of staff, to rescue a youthful White House beset by indiscipline and scandal and sinking beneath the weight of its own inexperience.

With Panetta, grown-ups took charge. Clinton regained his footing, and easily won re-election in 1996. After two and a half years in one of the most the most physically gruelling jobs in Washington, Panetta returned to California. His legacy included the federal budget surplus that emerged during the second Clinton term, and a solid reputation as a Democratic fixer and wise man. For a decade the contented elder statesman devoted himself to teaching, and the public policy institute he set up with his wife Sylvia in Monterey. From time to time, political opportunities arose, most notably in 2003 when Democrats desperately searched for a candidate to replace the doomed Governor Gray Davis. Panetta declined, arguing there was no time to raise money.

But in December 2008, President-elect Obama came calling, and this time Panetta could not refuse. The nomination as CIA director of a man with scant background in the spy business caused much surprise, even among fellow Democrats. "The agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time," sniffed Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee.

How wrong she was. Long discredited by its failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks and its mistaken view of Saddam Hussein's WMD, the agency was also reviled for its sinister "black camps" and use of torture. On Capitol Hill, the CIA was a punchbag. Top employees had left, either in dismay or under a cloud. What it needed was a man with clean hands and powerful political connections. Panetta qualified on both counts.

He had made known his disgust at "enhanced interrogation techniques" in 2008, when he wrote that Americans had been transformed "from champions of human dignity ... into a nation of armchair torturers", and did not abandon that view when he moved to Langley. Nor did he need to. If waterboarding helped to lead the way to Bin Laden, that information had been extracted long before Panetta arrived in Langley.

Nor was he exactly a neophyte in the secret world. Crumpled and bespectacled, Panetta not only resembled a novelistic spymaster. He also knew the Washington system inside out, and as White House Chief of Staff he attended the daily presidential intelligence briefings, privy to many of the country's most sensitive covert programmes. Within the CIA he quickly impressed. Unlike some newly arrived predecessors, he took only one senior personal aide with him, and told The New Yorker magazine: "I'm going to give people the benefit of the doubt." There was no public witch-hunt of suspected torturers, while Panetta earned further respect from his staff by fighting the CIA's bureaucratic corner, resisting efforts to shift traditional agency powers to the recently formed Directorate of National Intelligence.

And now Bin Laden, and one mission accomplished. But at the Pentagon, an even tougher mission awaits. Panetta must tidy up in Iraq, sort out Libya and prevail in Afghanistan – even as he pushes through cuts in military spending begun under the outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates. In short, just what you look forward to when you're rising 73.

A life in brief

Born: 28 June 1938, Monterey, California.

Education: Monterey High School. BA in political science and a doctorate in law from Santa Clara University.

Family: He and his wife Sylvia Marie have three children and five grandchildren.

Career: Was in US army from 1964-66, reaching rank of first lieutenant before discharge. Then began career in politics as legislative assistant to Republican Senator Thomas Kuchel. In 1969 he was appointed director of the Office for Civil Rights. In 1971 switched to Democrat Party and was elected to Congress where he was elected for nine terms, until appointed by Bill Clinton to be his chief of staff in 1994. Later nominated by Barack Obama for position of CIA director and was appointed in 2009.

He says: "The government obviously has been talking about how best to do this, but I don't think there was any question that ultimately a photograph [of Bin Laden] would be presented to the public."

They say: "Leon has great judgement, a great compass. He's a great manager, and he's trusted by both parties." Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff to Barack Obama

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