Panetta Says Politics at Play in Hagel Questioning

Sunday, 03 Feb 2013 09:23 AM

By Amy Woods

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said "the political knives" came out when Chuck Hagel faced fellow Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to be Pentagon chief.

Panetta said he was disappointed that Thursday's eight-hour hearing focused so much on what Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, had said in the past about Iran, Israel and other matters instead of what he thinks about today's issues, including the war in Afghanistan, the fight against terrorism, and looming automatic budget cuts and their impact on military readiness.

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"We just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues. And in the end, that's what counts," Panetta told NBC's "Meet the Press" in an interview broadcast Sunday.

"It's pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel," Panetta said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, noting the lengthy hearing, said on ABC's "This Week," ''give the guy a break. I thought he did pretty good." Reid, D-Nev., said Hagel's party affiliation "should be a plus. We need more."

Panetta said he is confident that Hagel is prepared to succeed him at the Pentagon.

In an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union," Panetta dismissed concerns that Hagel and former Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who was sworn in Friday as secretary of state, agree with Obama's views to the point that they won't challenge the president.

"I've got to tell you, anybody who knows John Kerry and anybody who knows Chuck Hagel ... they push back. Believe me, they push back on the issues," he said. "In the situation room, everybody has to give their honest views. And I think they won't hesitate to give their honest views."

Two Republican senators, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, have said they will support Hagel's nomination. Johanns said Saturday his concerns were allayed after Hagel's Senate hearing and after he met with Hagel for an hour.

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"Chuck earned this endorsement," Johanns said in an interview with the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star.

Panetta added that U.S. military readiness remains the No. 1 concern of outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon.

“If the sequester is allowed to go into effect, I think it could seriously impact on the readiness of the United States, and that’s a serious issue,” Panetta said Sunday on CNN’s "State of the Union."

He said America must be capable of responding not only to terrorist threats, but also to other international crises at any given moment.

“I just would not rule out any option in today’s world,” Panetta said. “We face a lot of threats today.”

Regarding the deadly attack in Benghazi in 2012, he admitted a lack of intelligence in and around the embassy and said, “We’ve got to do better at that.”

“The fact is, there are areas in the Middle East where we do not have the kind of intelligence we should have in order to give us a heads-up about these kinds of attacks,” Panetta said. “That’s a reality.”

He continued, “Very frankly, intelligence did not provide any warning that this, in fact, was going to happen. Very frankly, by the time we got the information as to what, in fact, was taking place there … just distance alone made it very difficult to respond quickly. That’s just the nature of dealing with the Middle East. This is not 911. You cannot just simply call and expect within two minutes to have a team in place. It takes time. That’s the nature of it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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