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Panetta: Protecting the U.S. While Protecting Privacy Comes Down to Integrity

Leon Panetta, left, then-director of the CIA, sits with National Intelligence director James Clapper, center, and FBI director Robert Mueller, to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February 2011.

“To be in charge of the FBI during the heart of the war on terrorism was not only a challenge, but it involved a transformation as well,” said Leon Panetta, former defense secretary under the Obama administration and director of the CIA from 2009 to 2011. Panetta offered reflections on outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller in a phone conversation with NewsHour senior correspondent Ray Suarez on Friday.

Listen to their conversation:

Robert Mueller took the helm of the FBI just a week before the attack on September 11, 2001, an event that “fundamentally changed the role of that agency,” according to Julian Zelizer of Princeton University, who joined Michael Chertoff in a discussion with Ray Suarez on the PBS NewsHour on Thursday.

Under Mueller, who led the agency for 12 years, the FBI made a major organizational transition from being concerned with catching bank robbers and drug dealers to remolding itself into an international intelligence and anti-terror agency.

As the FBI’s mission changed, Panetta says that Mueller’s leadership helped develop and define the relationship between the FBI and CIA. He also helped bring the two agencies together.

“We were confronting the same challenge, we were confronting the same enemy, we were confronting the same concerns about terrorism and it made sense for both of us to bring the best of our capabilities together to be able to protect the country.”

Panetta says that he and Mueller developed a close personal relationship, and that they had many discussions about the challenges of not going overboard in using increasing technological capabilities and capacity to snoop.

“I developed a tremendous amount of respect for his integrity,” Panetta said of Mueller.

The former CIA director says he doesn’t believe the intelligence and law enforcement community needs to choose between the need to protect the country and respecting the Constitution and Americans’ right to privacy.

“For all the laws you put in place, for all the standards you put in place, it really does come down to the integrity and statesmanship of those who have to enforce those laws.”

On Friday, the State Department issued a travel alert for Americans, warning for the possibility of terrorist attacks by al-Qaida. It also announced that it was closing some diplomatic missions abroad through the weekend.

Panetta says that despite major gains in weakening the al-Qaida leadership, “they still are a threat.”

“It still is very important that agencies like the FBI … do everything possible to make sure that we get ahead of this problem and ensure that we have the best information, the best intelligence possible, in order to protect the American people.”

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