Panetta's Confirmation Hearing Gets Choppy

Originally published on June 9, 2011 10:11 pm



From NPR News, this is All Things Considered, I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

We go first this hour to Capitol Hill, where CIA Director Leon Panetta appeared at a confirmation hearing for his next likely post, Secretary of Defense. Panetta is expected to sail smoothly through the confirmation process to succeed Robert Gates.

But the waters did get a bit choppy when Panetta went before the Senate Armed Services Committee today to address issues of war and ever-elusive peace. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: Leon Panetta is not only the CIA director under whom Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed. He's also a former Congressman, White House budget director and presidential chief of staff. And while he's been nominated as the next secretary of defense, he sounded today more like a man in line to be secretary of war.

Mr. LEON PANETTA (CIA director): We are no longer in the Cold War. This is more like the Blizzard War, a blizzard of challenges.

WELNA: The Armed Services panel's Democratic chairman, Carl Levin, quickly raised a hot issue from one contentious war, the number of troops to be withdrawn next month from Afghanistan. Levin quoted President Obama as saying the number should be significant and not a token gesture.

Mr. CARL LEVIN (Armed Services Committee): Director Panetta, do you agree that the U.S. troop reductions from Afghanistan beginning in July should be significant?

Mr. PANETTA: I agree with the president's statement.

WELNA: Ranking Republican John McCain opposes the large troop drawdown. He asked Panetta whether he agreed with departing Defense Secretary Gates who said troop withdrawals next month should be modest.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I think it's not inappropriate for you to answer for you to answer when I ask if you agree with Secretary Gates' assessment that the withdrawal should be modest.

Mr. PANETTA: Senator, if I'm confirmed I'll have to obviously arrive at a decision myself that I'll have to ultimately present to the president. But I'm not in that position now.

WELNA: Others on the panel clearly reflected the Afghanistan war fatigue a majority of Americans express in polls. Maine Republican Susan Collins pointed out that Afghanistan's resources fall far short of what's needed to sustain its own forces in the future.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): That says to me that we are going to have to continue to be a major contributor to paying for those security forces forever virtually. So tell me how this ends. I just don't see how it ends.

WELNA: Panetta's response was a study in the power of positive thinking.

Mr. PANETTA: I think if we stick with it, if we continue to provide help and assistance to them, that I think there is going to be a point where Afghanistan can control its own future. We have to operate on that hope.

WELNA: Panetta also said that if Iraq requests the U.S. keep a residual force in their nation beyond the scheduled departure of all U.S. troops at the end of this year, it ought to be seriously considered. South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham then pressed him on the U.S. involvement in Libya.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (South Carolina): If Gadhafi stays, what does that mean for our national security interest after we said he must go?

Mr. PANETTA: I think it impacts on our national security interests in the world if that happens.

WELNA: Still, once more, Panetta then emphasized the positive.

Mr. PANETTA: I think there are some signs that if we continue the pressure, if we stick with it, that ultimately Gadhafi will step down.

WELNA: Asked about the deteriorating situation in Yemen, Panetta said the U.S. continues to get anti-terrorism cooperation among the government officials who remain there.

Mr. PANETTA: I'd have to say that, you know, while obviously it's a, you know, it's a scary and uncertain situation, with regards to counterterrorism, we're still very much continuing our operations.

WELNA: Panetta warned the threat of al-Qaida now looms larger in places like Yemen, despite the death of bin Laden.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.