WASHINGTON – Defense secretary nominee Leon Panetta drew support from both Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing Thursday.
Committee members asked Panetta,the CIA director,about topics ranging from the nation’s security budget to “safe havens” for terrorists and policy in the Middle East and Asia.
Nearly all of the 25 senators present thanked Panetta for his continued service during a lengthy career in Washington and applauded him for accepting the nomination during a trying time for the Defense Department. The Pentagon chief must address the president’s order for a $400 billion spending cut while engaging in “two-and-a-half wars,” as Sen. John Cornyn,R-Texas,referred to the conflicts in Afghanistan,Iraq and Libya.
Republicans tested Panetta about whether he would approve budget reductions that might sacrifice progress recently made in Afghanistan.
Some of the toughest questions came from Sen. John McCain,R-Ariz.,who favors higher defense spending instead of cutbacks that he said might compromise security advances made during the recent troop surge.
“I think the assessment is that we have made progress with regards to security in that country,albeit it fragile and reversible,” Panetta said in response. “We also have made good progress in training of the forces there,both police and military force.”
Agreeing with Panetta’s “fragile and reversible” assessment,McCain pressed further by asking if the Obama administration’s planned July troop withdrawals should be “modest,” as proposed by outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
“I’m going to leave it up to Secretary Gates,Gen. [David] Petraeus and the president to decide what that number should be,” Panetta said.
Gates will retire June 30. Petraeus has been nominated to replace Panetta at the CIA.
“Well,if you’re secretary of Defense when that decision is made,obviously you will have significant influence,” McCain said,asking Panetta to answer his question more directly.
Panetta also fielded several questions about terrorist “safe havens” in Pakistan. The nominee called the U.S. relationship with Pakistan “critical” but “complicated and frustrating,” adding that the existence of terrorist cells in Pakistan might compromise U.S. success in Afghanistan.
“Terrorism is not just an enemy for the United States,” Panetta said. “It’s an enemy for Pakistan.”
Other topics included Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s cling to power,cyberterrorism and alternative energy possibilities for U.S. military technology.
In addition to the deployment and budget situations,Panetta said he would work individually with many of the Armed Services Committee members to tackle other issues.
As might be expected of a CIA director,Panetta entered the hearing room the second 9:29 a.m. became 9:30. Other senators entered the room late or left early.
One of the latest arrivals was first-term Sen. Rob Portman,R-Ohio,who directed the Office of Management and Budget during President George W. Bush’s second term. Panetta was OMB director for President Bill Clinton.
“I’m delighted to see that a former OMB director can actually make something of himself,” Portman joked. “You did a great job as director,and I know that you’ve had the opportunity today to answer some tough questions,but I’m sure the tone has been appreciative and respectful.”
Most of Portman’s questioning concerned spending. He said the department needs to provide top-notch military equipment for U.S. troops while reducing overall military spending.
“Senator,because of our common background I understand the costs that are involved in this area,” Panetta said. “We’re dealing with a culture that’s developed,and somehow we’ve got to change.
“I think what we’ve got to do is make clear that those that are involved … that they’ve got a responsibility here to be able to work with us to develop better competition.”
Panetta and the committee met in a closed session later in the day.
Reach reporter Michael Stainbrook at [email protected] or 202-326-9868
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