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Panetta knows about leading a White House with a president under investigation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden can now add a special counsel to his list of political concerns. This afternoon, after the disclosure of more improperly stored classified documents, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced he is appointing a special counsel. Robert Hur, a Justice Department official during the Trump administration, will investigate President Biden's handling of classified information. President Biden's lawyer says he's confident the investigation will show the documents were, quote, "inadvertently misplaced." Well, our next guest knows what it is like to lead a White House with the president under investigation. Before he served as CIA director and defense secretary, Leon Panetta was chief of staff to then-President Bill Clinton. During that time, President Clinton was investigated multiple times. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Mr. Secretary.

LEON PANETTA: Good to be with you.

KELLY: So you have been on all sides of this, handling classified information at the White House, at the CIA. Was it inevitable that a special counsel would be appointed, do you think, once yet another batch of documents was discovered?

PANETTA: I don't think there was any question, but that when a second group of documents was discovered, that ultimately there would have to be a special counsel to do the investigation. This is, obviously, an embarrassment for the White House, but ultimately it, too, has to be investigated. And probably the best way to investigate it is with a special counsel.

KELLY: You called it an embarrassment. Is it also damaging for President Biden? Whatever the special counsel eventually finds, just politically, this is a president who appears to be getting ready to mount another campaign for president.

PANETTA: Well, there's no question that, you know, it's both an embarrassment and damaging to the credibility of the White House because obviously, the president has criticized former President Trump in the way he handled classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. I don't think there's any question that these issues have to be investigated. But what all of this is pointing out is a much bigger problem, with regards to both the labeling and handling of classified material. I think there's a very serious problem involved, with regards to how those documents are, in fact, followed and how they are protected and how they are filed in the White House. And so I think there's a lot of issues here that are going to have to be looked at.

KELLY: You're making the point that, perhaps, one of the reasons why classified documents keep turning up in places where they shouldn't is that too many documents are classified in the first place?

PANETTA: Well, there's a combined problem here. I think one is whether or not we over-classify certain documents. I mean, that's been an issue that's been criticized for a long time. And I think there's some validity to that. But the second one is how are classified documents, in fact, handled? Normally, you know, my understanding, when I was both chief of staff and director of the CIA, is that you document these classified documents, you make sure that they are protected in a secure area. You require that those documents be returned to that area. And obviously, that system has broken down.

KELLY: Speak to the parallels between these situations because you nodded to the fact that President Biden's predecessor, former President Trump, has also been investigated. How different is this - how similar is this to the Mar-a-Lago documents?

PANETTA: Well, it's obvious that, in the President Trump situation, I think he was generally not very careful or responsible with regards to classified documents. I mean, I think there's a history here that he didn't pay a lot of attention to classification, that he threw these documents around, put them in boxes and generally just did not handle them well. I would assume that with President Biden, there was at least a sense of concern about making sure that documents like this are, in fact, handled properly. But it's also clear that, for some reason, this did not happen in this case. And I think staff probably bear some responsibility, in both situations, for what happened.

KELLY: Before I let you go, I wonder if you - you're obviously not at the White House. We've tracked you down today in California, but what is it like to be working inside the White House on the day that a special counsel to investigate the president is named?

PANETTA: Frankly, it just provides an added burden to a place where you're constantly handling crisis after crisis to begin with.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Leon Panetta, who has served in multiple roles in multiple administrations, including as White House chief of staff, CIA director and secretary of defense. Secretary Panetta, thank you.

PANETTA: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 11, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story said that NPR's Juana Summers conducted this interview. In fact, the interviewer was Mary Louise Kelly.