The Smear That Failed: When Right-Wing Media Suggested Leon Panetta Was A Secret Communist

Before the Senate unanimously confirmed Leon Panetta to head the Department of Defense last month, there was a notable smear simmering in the right-wing fever swamp: Leon Panetta may be a communist.

The story began with a column by Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, which hinged on “a close and personal relationship” Panetta supposedly had “with a member of the Communist Party by the name of Hugh DeLacy.”

From Kincaid's column:

[M]y friend and associate Trevor Loudon and I have dug into the background of CIA director and Secretary of Defense nominee Leon Panetta. It's too bad that we didn't have this material assembled before now, but better late than never. The evidence shows that Panetta had a close and personal relationship with a member of the Communist Party by the name of Hugh DeLacy, whose record included meeting with communist espionage agents. By any objective standard of journalism, this should be big news. But the question now is whether the media, liberal and conservative, will take time off from Weinergate to pay attention and examine the evidence.


A column of this length does not permit me to go into all aspects of what we have discovered about Panetta. But suffice it to say that the relationship with DeLacy is something that stands out. In a sense, Panetta did not hide it. Back in 1983 he inserted a tribute into the Congressional Record, recognizing DeLacy and his wife Dorothy, another communist, for their commitment to “social justice” and resisting “the dark forces of McCarthyism.” The latter strongly indicates that Panetta was aware of their involvement in the communist cause and that not only did it not matter to him, it was evidence of their courage and bravery. We knew about the tribute from press reports, but I found a copy of this tribute in the Congressional Record at a local library.


[Trevor Loudon] adds, “The DeLacys were not merely Panetta's constituents -- they were close personal friends. Hugh DeLacy was also a longtime correspondent, with whom Panetta regularly discussed defense and foreign policy issues.”

Loudon knows this because he took the time to examine the Hugh DeLacy papers at the University of Washington. They include a series of “Dear Hugh” and “Dear Leon” exchanges in which then-Rep. Panetta promised DeLacy several apparently sensitive documents. Not only did Panetta insert a tribute into the Congressional Record, he spoke at DeLacy's memorial service after his death in 1986. One wonders if the FBI was ever made aware of this.

From there, syndicated columnist Diana West picked up on the Panetta-DeLacy relationship:

“Within two years,” Loudon said in a recent online interview with Jerry Kenney, “DeLacy was in regular contact with Leon Panetta, grilling him and regularly asking him for military and defense- and foreign-policy-related information, which Panetta heavily supplied him.”

Frank Gaffney ran with the same angle in a Washington Times column:

Thanks to intrepid reporting by Cliff Kincaid, we now know that during his days as a congressman from California, Leon E. Panetta had close personal ties to communist agents and spies. At no point has he disavowed such relationships or expressed remorse for any help he may have provided them. Neither has any senator indicated concern about the problematic judgment or security risks that might be associated with such a Pentagon chief.

To summarize: Panetta supposedly had a personal relationship with a Hugh DeLacy, which is troubling not just because DeLacy's political thinking leaned far to the left, but because he was, supposedly, involved with communist spies. This is made even more problematic because Panetta purportedly supplied this supposed communist spy with information related to defense and foreign policy.

So, who is Hugh DeLacy? According to the biographical note that accompanies the University of Washington's index of the Hugh DeLacy Papers, he served one term in Congress as a New Deal Democrat from 1944 to 1946. His later career involved both campaign work and employment as a carpenter and contractor. He moved to Santa Cruz in 1971, making him Panetta's constituent when Panetta took office in 1977. In retirement, DeLacy entered a graduate program in philosophy and began a study of “Marxist and communist theories.” The same biographical note also mentions that the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors named a memorial garden for DeLacy, in recognition of his community involvement and peace advocacy. According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, DeLacy “invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked by the House Un-American Activities Committee if he was or ever had been a Communist.”

It should come as no surprise that the correspondence between Panetta and DeLacy offers no strong evidence of an improper relationship. Media Matters contacted the University of Washington library that houses the DeLacy papers and requested photocopies of any documents related to then-Rep. Panetta -- the very same correspondence cited by Kincaid and Loudon as evidence of a “close and personal relationship” between Panetta and DeLacy. The papers contain 10 letters from Panetta, and one brief note that accompanies a transmission of part of the Congressional Record. The remainder of the documents are copies of letters from DeLacy to Panetta, and several publicly available documents, such as news clippings, a newsletter from Panetta to constituents, and excerpts from the Congressional Record.

All of the letters from Panetta have two things in common: All are written on official letterhead for his congressional office, and all are policy-related responses to DeLacy. It is not just a stretch to call any of the correspondence personal; it simply isn't true.

As for Loudon's statement, as quoted by West, that Panetta “heavily supplied” information related to national security to DeLacy, it implies a knowing action on Panetta's part to offer sensitive information to an avowed communist spy. That, too, crumbles under its own weight.

Of the 10 letters from Panetta, six regard national security or foreign policy. The first responds to DeLacy's request for a particular Brookings Institution report. Panetta explained that the report was not available for distribution, but he summarized its contents, which stated that U.S. military pressure “is successful most often in those cases in which we arrive in a display of military support of a foreign government before hostilities break out.” Panetta then referred DeLacy to the study's authors for more detailed information. In another letter, DeLacy expressed concerns about a 16 percent increase in defense spending pushed by the Reagan administration. Panetta responded by detailing his own concerns, namely that the increased spending would not be effective and would hurt the economy. Other letters are similar non-events, detailing the then-congressman's positions on U.S. involvement in Lebanon and Central America.

In other words, it's precisely the sort of banal correspondence one would expect to be exchanged between a member of Congress and an involved constituent. Constituent asks policy questions; congressman describes his position. It is true, but irrelevant, that Panetta recognized DeLacy in the Congressional Record and that Panetta offered a eulogy at DeLacy's funeral. DeLacy was a former member of Congress who had been recognized by his community for his civic involvement (as evidenced by the previously mentioned memorial garden). For a congressman to offer kind remarks at the memorial service of a recognized leader among his constituency is hardly noteworthy or insidious. Not only does all of this fail to form convincing evidence of a close, personal relationship bordering on a communist conspiracy, it isn't even news.

Lest there be any doubt that this entire narrative was bogus from front to back, consider this exchange between Panetta and DeLacy. In response to a 1978 railway worker strike, Panetta sent a telegraph to then-President Carter, urging him to order the workers back to work and to convene a special panel to evaluate the dispute. DeLacy wrote to Panetta:

Our government speaks of its stand for human rights. Do not working people have the human right to act, through their unions, for job security?

If you could not have helped the railroad workers, you might have said nothing at all, as when Initiative 14 was on the ballot.

Upon receiving DeLacy's criticism, Panetta explained that federal law dictates that there be no change in working conditions while the panel is convened, and then defended his action, writing:

My prime reason for doing this was my strong concern that a prolonged strike could have a severe and disastrous effect on our economy, just as we are beginning to come out of an economic slump. This would jeopardize the jobs of millions of Americans, something I believe is not justified under any circumstances when other alternatives exist.

Apparently, we're to believe that then-Congressman Panetta was so deep in the communist's pocket that he furnished him with security information, but was nonetheless able to find disagreement with said communist on the proper government action concerning a labor dispute.

The divide between reality and these hit-and-run smear jobs illustrates just how low the right-wing blogosphere is willing to stoop to smear a political opponent. And again, despite that willingness, every single member of the Senate voted to confirm Panetta.

It all might be laughable if stories from the fringe didn't so frequently jump to more mainstream outlets.