Leon Panetta on Top Chef: Updated

Posted on August 29, 2010


Among the many twenty-first century American curiosities that might be unearthed by our future descendants—-be they vampires, cannibals, talking apes, or mutant tea-baggers—-will be this particular discomfiting and weird bit of twentieth century television. Top Chef, which creates “culinary challenges” for its reality show contestants, last week forced its chefs to cook for CIA director Leon Panetta, and his pals from the intelligence community, at Langley.

It was actually much less frightening than it sounds. Panetta turns out to have quite a discerning palette and a nose for ferreting out culinary disguises–the theme of the show was “undercover dishes”. Panetta charmed the pants off the other judges on the show with his ribald and incisive cuisine commentary. But in one particularly disturbing moment, Panetta is handed a slip of paper by a flunky, and announces, ominously, that he must go, accompanied by jump cuts to several constipated faces, both cast and intelligence community. Duty calls.

Given that the show was shot between April and June of this year, it’s quite possible that Panetta was responding to one of the many incidents in which his “drone” anti-insurgency strategy accidentally killed civilians in Pakistan. This begs the question as to why such a busy and important man, overseeing a program rife with lethal mistakes, is holding court about the concealed flavors of main courses on a Bravo reality show.

It could be, given the timing of shooting—from April to July—that Panetta was taking a stab at a PR charm offensive. After all, in May, the UN announced that it was investigating the idea of war crimes charges against CIA drone operators, who fit the definition of “illegal combatants” because neither they, nor their aircraft proxies [nor, ironically, Panetta], fly visible military colors.

If so, Panetta needn’t have bothered. One vapid contestant after another made jokes about secrets and spies, blissfully unaware of what the modern CIA—a non-combatant assassination force–is up to in full daylight. I can’t know for certain whether or not these contestants are reflective of the population as a whole. Maybe there are people out there who still read the paper. In either case, it’s odd to see a man sipping soup on a reality tv show, as the UN contemplates charging him as a war criminal, and while he plans to extend his besieged and murderous program to new countries, such as Yemen. Only in America.


One of the more surreal elements of this already surreal scene is that Panetta had already declared, in April of this year, openly and in press releases, his intention to assassinate Anwawr Al Alawki, an American citizen. Panetta asserted that his agency has the right to murder US citizens at any time and place without trial, if the CIA so chooses. As Glenn Greenwald notes today, in reporting on an incipient lawsuit brought by Al Awlaki’s father and the ACLU, to prevent Panetta and other Obama officials from going ahead with such policies:

The lawsuit — captioned Al-Aulaqi v. Obama — was filed in federal court in the District of Columbia, and names Barack Obama, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates as defendants.  Among other relief, the Complaint asks the court to (a) “declare that the Constitution [along with ‘treaty and customary international law’] prohibits Defendants from carrying out the targeted killing of U.S. citizens, including Plaintiff’s son, except in circumstances in which they present concrete, specific, and imminent threats to life or physical safety, and there are no means other than lethal force that could reasonably be employed to neutralize the threats”; (b) “enjoin Defendants from intentionally killing U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi” unless they demonstrate the applicability of those narrow circumstances; and (c) “order Defendants to disclose the criteria that are used in determining whether the government will carry out the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen” (emphasis added).

Here’s the clip: