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Defense chief Leon Panetta's commute raises eyebrows

Some wonder how the Defense secretary can manage frequent weekend trips to his California home, but aides say he's never out of touch.

September 01, 2011|By David S. Cloud, Washington Bureau
  • Some Washington observers wonder how Defense Secretary Leon Panetta can spend so many weekends at his California home, but aides say he's always in touch.
Some Washington observers wonder how Defense Secretary Leon Panetta can… (Olvier Douliery, Abaca…)

Reporting from Washington — Shortly after Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta took office July 1, he boarded a U.S. Air Force jet and flew home to California for a three-day weekend. He has flown home five weekends since then and has spent part of a two-week vacation there.

Aides say that unless he is required to stay in Washington or travel elsewhere, Panetta will spend most weekends and days off at his 12-acre walnut farm in scenic Carmel Valley, where he and his wife, Sylvia, make their home.

It is common for members of Congress to fly back to their districts every weekend or so, and Panetta did so when he represented Monterey in the House from 1977 to 1993, and as CIA director, his first job in the Obama administration.

But his absences at the Pentagon have raised eyebrows in workaholic Washington. Even some of Panetta's friends wonder how he can get away so regularly while his department, by far the largest in the U.S. government, faces multiple wars and daily crises.

"I think he's got the toughest job in Washington, and I think it's amazing" that he plans to go home so often, said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who represents the area and calls his own weekly coast-to-coast commute "the toughest part of the job."

Panetta usually flies home late Friday and returns to Washington late Sunday, getting to work on Monday morning, his aides say. Before agreeing to run the Pentagon, he told the White House that he planned to go home frequently. His aides maintain he stays in touch while out of town.

When Hurricane Irene threatened the East Coast last weekend and journalists began asking whether Panetta would return early, the Pentagon spokesman, George Little, issued a statement saying Panetta had taken "an average of 5-7 minutes to approve" requests from governors to mobilize National Guard units and provide other relief supplies.

He stays in regular email and phone contact on his ranch, they say. A secure telephone has been installed so he can discuss classified material, and he can participate in secure video teleconferences at a facility a short drive away.

When a CH-47 helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan on Aug. 6, killing 30 Americans, Panetta's senior military assistant, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, called him in Carmel Valley with the initial reports. The next morning, after he spoke to commanders in Afghanistan, Panetta joined a conference call convened by national security adviser Tom Donilon to discuss the incident, Pentagon officials said.

"He is on duty 24-7, as any senior official is, and just like the president when he goes on vacation, the secretary is accessible 24-7," said Doug Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

Robert M. Gates, the previous defense secretary, kept a home in Washington state. Gates visited several times a year for holidays or vacation but did not go home each weekend.

His predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, made occasional visits to a home in Taos, N.M., when he led the Pentagon. But he mostly stayed in Washington or at his house on the nearby Chesapeake Bay.

Panetta is required to fly on U.S. government aircraft, whether on official business or not, to ensure constant communication with the Pentagon and the White House in case of a national security crisis.

On personal trips, like the weekend flights, Panetta is required to reimburse the Treasury for the cost of an equivalent coach fare. The actual cost of flying him is far higher — about $3,200 per flight hour, according to the Defense Department.

When Panetta served in Congress, he flew home most weekends to Monterey, where his wife ran his district office for many years. As budget director and later White House chief of staff from 1993 to 1997, during the Clinton administration, he found it harder to get to California as frequently.

After he left the government, he and his wife established the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Monterey in 1998, which they ran jointly until President Obama nominated him to head the CIA in 2009. His wife now directs the institute; federal ethics rules bar Panetta from playing a role while he is in the Cabinet.

When he goes home, he flies on the Air Force version of a Gulfstream executive jet, which also carries communications gear. When he was the CIA director, Panetta once was out of contact for 45 minutes aboard a chartered aircraft, aides said

The CIA director's usual plane had mechanical problems, and aides discovered they did not have the phone number of the replacement aircraft. The snafu became a mini-crisis when an urgent request came for Panetta to approve an operation against a suspected terrorist, a senior Pentagon aide said.

Communications were eventually restored, and the delay had no impact on the operation, but it drove home to Panetta the importance of always being reachable, the aide said.

The Pentagon's top lawyer, Jeh C. Johnson, sent Panetta a memo on official travel last month noting that all flights by the defense secretary are deemed "required use," meaning they must be on military aircraft.

The secretary "is at all times in the military chain of command between the president and the combatant commander, and he and the president are also responsible for the control and direction of nuclear forces," according to the memo, which was shared by the Pentagon.

"Thus, consistent with past practice, Secretary Panetta is a 'required use' traveler for all of his air transportation," the memo concluded.

david.cloud@latimes.com

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