However, Panetta drew from his two years as CIA chief to escalate the use of drones for both counterterrorism strikes and intelligence gathering. While he profited from Gates' campaign to dramatically increase investments in drones, he expanded their use to target the al-Qaida affiliates around the world. And he opened up the public debate over them a bit when, on the tarmac at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Panetta became one of the first U.S. officials to talk openly about the CIA's use of killer drones — long a taboo subject.
During speeches in the last week, as he set the table for his legacy, Panetta talked repeatedly of the war on al-Qaida. The man behind the raid that killed bin Laden wants to ensure that the targeting continues, and that it blocks the terror network from gaining footholds in North Africa, Somalia and Yemen, and from returning to its bases in Afghanistan.
Panetta insists that al-Qaida's leadership has been decimated. But he acknowledges the fight is far from over and victory not yet in reach. In fact, he spent much of his last trip dealing with the hostage crisis in Algeria, where Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida attacked a natural gas complex in the middle of the Sahara desert.
Sometime next month, Panetta will leave the Pentagon, finally returning home to his beloved walnut farm in Carmel, Calif. In the farewell ceremony on board his military plane, the son of Italy thanked his staff for working to protect America, saying he believes they made the world safer.
In turn, they presented him with a cake. Across the top was written: Arrivederci.