The Defense Secretary: Leon Panetta

Leon Panetta has both balanced the budget and eliminated Osama bin Laden. Now as secretary of defense, he's fighting multiple wars, pursuing al Qaeda, and trying to keep Iran from building an atom bomb.

Leon Panetta's mother wanted her son to be a concert pianist, but hopefully she wouldn't be disappointed that he's instead gone on to be a congressman, White House chief of staff, director of the Office of Management and Budget, head of the CIA, and now secretary of defense, where he is managing three million employees, fighting multiple wars, pursuing al Qaeda all over the world, and trying to keep Iran from building an atom bomb. Mr. Panetta's mother would probably also be pleased that her son still owns the northern California family farm where he was raised. That's where Mr. Panetta escapes from Washington -- tending the walnut trees that he and his brother planted 65 years ago, and even playing a bit of piano. Scott Pelley reports.


The following script is from "Defense Secretary Panetta" which originally aired on Jan. 29, 2012 and was rebroadcast on June 10, 2012. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Henry Schuster, producer.

No one would have picked a 73-year-old, affable, former congressman as the one to track down Osama bin Laden. But as we first told you earlier this year, Leon Panetta has held the toughest jobs in Washington and quietly done what seems impossible. Before bin Laden, Panetta helped balance the federal budget. In a long career he'd been budget director and White House chief of staff, but by 1997 he left Washington and went home to California. It was 12 years later, President-elect Obama made an odd request. Would Panetta lead the CIA? Panetta had never worked in intelligence, but his team put a Navy Seal in bin Laden's bedroom. Last summer the president made Panetta secretary of defense, in charge of managing three million employees, fighting three wars, and stopping Iran from building an atom bomb.

This past January, before the president spoke to the nation, he had a few words for Leon Panetta.

[President Obama: Good job tonight, good job.]

With nearly the entire government assembled for the State of the Union address maybe 10 people in the room knew what that was about. The Navy's Seal Team Six had just rescued two hostages, including an American woman. This time the action was in Somalia.

Scott Pelley: In how many countries are we currently engaged in a shooting war?

Leon Panetta: It's a good question. That's-- you know, it's--

Pelley: You have to stop and count.

Panetta: Gotta stop-- I'll have to stop and think about that, because you know, obviously we're going after al Qaeda, wherever they're at. And clearly, we're confronting al Qaeda in Pakistan. We're confronting the nodes of al Qaeda in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa.

When you're secretary of defense it's a small world and a dangerous one. Panetta was covering it when we caught up with him on a trip to Afghanistan, where he has 90,000 troops, Iraq, where the war was ending, and Libya where he'd helped depose Qaddafi. Panetta travels on a flying command post, where he can reach every American warplane, submarine and missile silo. If the president ordered a nuclear war, Panetta would launch it from what they call the doomsday plane.

Pelley: The president would reach you on this aircraft.

Panetta: The president would reach me on this aircraft and very possibly be on this aircraft, to be able to direct what happens in that situation.

We noticed Panetta's Spartan compartment is built for two. Two chairs, two bunks, two phones - for him and the president. But on this trip Panetta wasn't worried about Russia's thousands of nuclear weapons, he was thinking of what he would do if Iran built just one.

Panetta: The United States, and the president's made this clear, does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us. And it's a red line obviously for the Israelis so we share a common goal here. If we have to do it, we will do it.

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