“You’re a reminder of what public service ought to be,” Obama told the departing defense chief. “Whatever the challenge, Leon, you always give it to us straight — sometimes in words that can’t be repeated in public.”
Obama also lauded Panetta for “sharing” his golden retriever, Bravo, “the first dog of the Pentagon,” who sat with Panetta’s family in the audience.
Panetta noted in his speech that Bravo “was in all of the meetings when we planned the bin Laden operation,” adding: “He has never told a soul what he heard. He is definitely not a leaker — at least according to that definition of the word.”
Panetta, 74, took office as defense secretary in July 2011, succeeding Robert M. Gates, a holdover from the George W. Bush administration, who retired after 4 1/2 years on the job. Panetta was confirmed by the Senate in June 2011 on a 100-0 vote, a reflection of congressional appreciation for his service as director of the CIA for the previous two years.
As CIA chief, Panetta presided over an escalation of strikes against the al-Qaeda terrorist network, including the May 2011 raid by U.S. Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. During Panetta’s CIA tenure, drone strikes against al-Qaeda and affiliated militants in Pakistan increased markedly, a tactic he embraced.
“These operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of targeting, and it involved a minimum of collateral damage,” Panetta said in May 2009. “Very frankly, it’s the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.”
Before joining the Obama administration, Panetta and his wife, Sylvia Panetta, served as directors of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which they founded in 1998 at California State University, Monterey Bay.
The Panettas live on a 12-acre walnut farm in Carmel Valley, Calif., and the cost of his frequent trips home on military aircraft stirred controversy during his term as Pentagon chief.
From 1977 to 1993, Panetta served as a Democratic congressman from California representing parts of Santa Clara County and San Jose. He joined the administration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, serving as budget director for a year and a half before becoming Clinton’s chief of staff, a post he held from 1994 to 1997.