CIA Director Leon Panetta is widely expected to be confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense, but he is nonetheless facing some pointed questions today from the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding troop levels in Afghanistan, defense spending cuts, Libya and Iran.
Many of the Senators’ questions focused on Afghanistan. President Obama’s appointee to succeed current Secretary Robert Gates, who will step down on June 30, avoided making any specific statements on troop draw-downs in Afghanistan.
When asked by Senator John McCain if he agreed with Secretary Gates’ statement that troop withdraws from Afghanistan should be “modest,” Panetta replied: ”I agree they should be conditions-based.”
When pressed further by McCain to provide specifics on timelines and numbers, Panetta said he would have to wait.
“If I’m confirmed, I’ll have to obviously arrive at a decision myself,” Panetta said. “I’m not in that position now. Obviously, I have tremendous admiration for Secretary Gates. But with regards to specific numbers…”
“I wasn’t asking for specific numbers,” McCain cut in before moving on to another question.
Senators were also concerned about President Obama’s plan to cut $400 billion from the Pentagon budget through fiscal year 2023. Senator Lindsey Graham asked his opinion of the cuts.
“I agree with the commitment of the president to try to take action to reduce the deficit,” Panetta said. “I do want to say there is a comprehensive review that is going on … That review is looking at a number of issues … I look forward to the results of that review.”
When pressed by Graham, Panetta said he would voice concerns to the president if the cuts were too drastic, although he did not think they would be.
During the confirmation hearing, Panetta said he is prepared to deal with the unique and challenging situation that the incoming Secretary of Defense will face. Unlike the Cold War, with its one enemy, he said the U.S. was engaged in a “blizzard war,” engaging multiple, fast-moving threats in many locations across the globe.
Panetta was appointed CIA director in 2009. He was also President Clinton’s Chief of Staff from 1994 through 1997, director of the Office of Management and Budget and was elected to nine terms in Congress.