Leon Panetta looks back at the OKC bombing 25 years later

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25 years ago, the government and the nation was clearing the rubble from the federal building in Oklahoma City. A domestic terrorist bombing that killed 168 people and did more than a half billion dollars in damage. For some perspective on how things changed, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to then chief of staff for President Clinton, the honorable Leon Panetta.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Panetta, good to have you on.

Leon Panetta: Good to be with you.

Tom Temin: And calling you the former chief of staff is like saying Don Shula worked in football. We know you had a lot of other jobs in government besides that. But you were in the White House at that moment and give us a sense of what the reaction was when the news came in.

Leon Panetta: Well I was chief of staff to President Clinton, and it was in the morning of April 19. And my usual responsibility was to go in to the president and go over his schedule and prepare him for the day. I think we probably even had an intelligence briefing that morning, we usually did. And we were completing that work in the Oval Office and as we walked out of the Oval Office, there was a television in the outer office and the television was announcing the terrible news that the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma had been bombed. Obviously, a number of casualties had been involved. And they were describing this and I can remember standing in front of a television set with a president and with other aides the president just standing there and shocked silence, you know, listening to these reports and asking ourselves, just what the hell had happened.

Tom Temin: And I guess too that you have related the idea that there were people that wanted to jump to conclusions about who was behind this, but that President Clinton cautioned, let’s find out some more facts first, before we jump to conclusions.

Leon Panetta: Well, you can imagine that you know, when a federal building is bombed and it’s an act of terrorism that the first suspicion, I think we even discussed it at the time was that this was probably the work of foreign terrorists. They had taken down embassies abroad, they had bombed many of our facilities. And so we just assumed for that moment that it could very well be foreign terrorists. And, you know, it is the kind of situation where a president the united states just has to be really careful about drawing any conclusions and adding, you know, speculation to what is a terrible situation and causing, you know, the wrong kind of reaction with the American people. And when the President had his press briefing, following that, one of the things that I really appreciated at the time was the fact that the President made the point that we ought not to draw any conclusions until the investigation proceeds and determines who is responsible, that we will bring those individuals to justice, but we should not draw any conclusions as to who they are until the investigation actually determines who are the villains who would do something this despicable.

Tom Temin: And I recall after that incident, there were calls for better information sharing among federal agencies, could this type of activity have been detected? And this was early into the internet age. I mean, 95 most people didn’t even have PCs with browsers at that point. And then later you were Secretary of Defense during the Obama administration. Did you find that the effect of greater information sharing had finally taken place and taken hold across the government?

Leon Panetta: Well, we learned an awful lot between what happened then and what happened on 9/11 and realize that, you know, one of the problems at the federal level was that so much of the federal level in terms of long form intelligence was stove piped, in the sense that different agencies, different departments, kind of dealt with their own, did not really share information that much with others. And the result was that things can fall in the gap and you can miss important information and that it was important to share critical intelligence and critical reports about potential threats. And coming out of 9/11 in particular I think the intelligence agencies recognized that it was absolutely critical to share information not only between the agencies but with law enforcement, with the FBI and others, so that everyone was informed of potential threats to our security, and I think it has improved a great deal. I saw it as director of the CIA, the sharing of important information on those who were threatening our security, and I saw it certainly as Secretary of Defense as well.

Tom Temin: How do you think the government did change in a permanent way other than information sharing and so forth? Do you think it did change the government, the Oklahoma City bombing?

Leon Panetta: I think there are always lessons to be learned from tragedy. So I hope that all of us learn the lessons of what we’re going through now with COVID-19, and that we improve the way we respond to crises as a result of that. And I think that’s true for the Oklahoma bombing. Obviously, one of the first things that was raised was the whole issue of security for federal buildings and improving security. I mean, there were a large number of employees in that federal building. As a matter of fact, I think Timothy McVeigh who is the person who blew up that building with his Ryder truck that was full of explosives. When he lit the fuse and was walking away, parents were dropping off their children at the daycare center, there at the building and 19 children were killed among 168 who died. So there was, I think first, one of the first things was the importance of securing federal buildings around the country. Secondly, as I said, it was the first time that I think we recognize that terrorism is not only something that can happen from abroad, it can happen within our own country as well, and recognize that domestic terrorism was as dangerous as foreign terrorism in terms of the lives that could be lost. And so it was something that I think law enforcement and intelligence agencies recognized that we have to be aware of not only foreign terrorists, but domestic terrorists as well. And then I think thirdly is the importance of sharing information in a way that we have to provide for the security of the country. I always felt as CIA Director and as Secretary of Defense, and I pleaded for presidents that your first responsibility is to protect the country, to keep this country safe. And in order to do that, you’ve got to be operating as a team, you’ve got to be able to look at information from across the world potential threats that may be there that you need to be aware of from across the world. And that you need to be fully prepared to respond to these kinds of threats and be able in the end to anticipate what can happen and hopefully prevent it from happening. That’s really the principal goal of sharing information.

Tom Temin: And maybe a final comment on the idea of resiliency, which also came up after 9/11 and is coming up now and has been kind of a staple for Homeland Security. And that is you can’t anticipate in detail everything that might happen. Nobody has that good of an imagination or forecasting ability. But it’s how you respond afterwards to the unexpected or the unknown, like COVID-19, that really tests the resiliency of the government and the society as a whole.

Leon Panetta: There’s no question About that, I mean, I, as Secretary of Defense, I think one of our principal responsibilities is to prepare and be ready to respond to any contingency in any possible conflict any place in the world. In other words, to look at our adversaries and determine, you know, how we would respond if we were attacked by our adversaries. And so we do a lot of planning, we do planning to determine various scenarios of what could happen. We deploy weapons abroad so that we can be ready to respond with an arsenal, if necessary. We deploy our forces to be in key positions so they can respond quickly, if we have to. That’s all part of planning. But it’s also true that when an actual conflict does occur, when something does occur, you’ve got to be you know, a plan alone isn’t enough. You’ve got to be flexible to respond to the circumstances of that moment. And that means you’ve got to be resilient. You’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to be creative. You’ve got to be innovative. And at the same time, you’ve got to be organized in responding so that you’re doing the very best to try to protect people. So it’s all of those qualities that are absolutely critical to the ability of our country to protect our own people and protect their safety.

Tom Temin: And during this pandemic, have you felt the urge to take up a classified phone and holler at somebody?

Leon Panetta: Just about every day. I mean, having been there in the White House during a crisis and understanding that it’s never easy to deal with a bureaucracy that you almost have to be constantly on top of every agency, every department, every individual that has a role to play and make sure that they are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And that’s that’s the bottom line for leadership is that you’ve got to make sure that people are doing what is necessary to protect others. And that’s easier said than done. It means you have to be constantly on top of what’s going on. I mean, I think even during the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing, I had taskforce meetings in the White House every day to talk about how, what was law enforcement doing? What were the FBI doing? What were intelligence agencies doing? What were we doing to respond to the crisis of all these families that have been impacted by the attack? Asking all of those questions, getting information, doing what was necessary in order to make sure that the job was getting done. I mean, in the end, people are responsible for ensuring that our people are protected. And to do this, very frankly, you’ve got to be able to be tough. You’ve got to be able to be disciplined. You’ve got to be able to understand that information you’re often getting may not be correct and be able to question the information you’re getting. But in the end, you really have to pull a team together so that everybody understands that the first thing you have to tell each other is the truth, be honest with one another, and then respond to every situation in an effective way. So it’s a tough job. I certainly understand it as chief of staff. But that’s why people are in those positions is to not just sit on their butts, but actually do the job that they’re assigned to do.

Tom Temin: Former Defense Ssecretary CIA and OMB Director, White House Chief of Staff and Congressman Leon Panetta, thanks so much for joining me.

Leon Panetta: Good to be with you.