Panel Questions Panetta Over Afghan War, Budget

President Obama's nominee to head the Pentagon faced plenty of questions from senators at his confirmation hearing on Thursday. Leon Panetta is currently the Director of the CIA and is expected to be easily confirmed as Defense secretary.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

We start this morning with the man picked to be the next secretary of defense. He's Leon Panetta. Yesterday, he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Panetta is all but guaranteed to be confirmed for the top job at the Pentagon, what with his long resume of public service and his role as CIA director in the recent killing of Osama bin Laden.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH: It was pretty much a bipartisan love fest at the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. Here's Independent Joe Lieberman and Democrats Claire McCaskill and Richard Blumenthal.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): Thank you for answering the call to serve your country again. I...

Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): Thank you for your service, and look forward to working and supporting you in every way possible.

Senator RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (Democrat, Connecticut): I can't wait to vote for your confirmation.

KEITH: And South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Mr. Director, I can't thank you enough for being willing enough to do this job after being CIA director. I just think the president's put together an A-plus national security team, and you're one of the lynch pins of that. So, now some hard questions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEITH: More like a hard-to-do list.

Sen. GRAHAM: You're taking over at a time when the budget for the nation has never been more out of whack. We're in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. You've got a very big agenda to fulfill.

KEITH: And big shoes to fill. Panetta is replacing Robert Gates, who many senators said yesterday will go down in history as one of the nation's best defense secretaries. When Gates came on board five years ago, his main task was to find a way out of Iraq. Now, an end is in sight there. Panetta's challenge: find a way out of Afghanistan.

Republican Senator Susan Collins asked what a lot of Americans are probably wondering.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): Tell me how this ends. I just don't see how it ends.

Mr. LEON PANETTA (Director, CIA): Well, I understand the concerns that you've raised, senator, and I think we all share those concerns.

KEITH: Panetta said the hope is that there will be a point when the government in Afghanistan, the military and the police will be able to stand on their own. But that's still a ways off. The more immediate question: How many troops should be pulled out of Afghanistan starting next month? Senators tried and failed to get Panetta to take a position that. Here's Arizona Republican John McCain.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Would you agree with Secretary Gates repeated statements that withdrawals in July should be, quote, "modest?"

Mr. PANETTA: I agree that they should be conditions-based, and I'm going to leave it up to Secretary Gates and General Petraeus and the president to decide what that number should be.

Sen. MCCAIN: Well, if you're the secretary of defense, when decision is made, obviously, you will have significant influence. I think it's not inappropriate for you to answer when I ask if you agree with Secretary Gates' assessment that the withdrawal should be modest.

KEITH: Senator McCain didn't get his answer. On to another item on that big agenda: the budget. President Obama has called for cutting $400 billion from spending on national security over the next dozen years. Secretary Gates has said making those cuts could hurt the military, if not done strategically. Panetta was asked if he agrees.

Mr. PANETTA: I share his concerns. I share his concerns about the possibility of hollowing out our force. I think that would be a terrible mistake.

KEITH: Several senators called on Panetta to find savings that don't gut the force, like in military procurement - think weapons programs that come in late and over budget. He said there's room for improvement there. And, Panetta argued, he is uniquely suited to handle this dual challenge of fighting wars while cutting budgets. He's CIA director, served in Congress and was President Clinton's budget director, among other things.

Mr. PANETTA: I do not believe, based on my long experience in government and working with budgets, that we have to choose between strong fiscal discipline and strong national defense.

KEITH: If confirmed, Panetta would likely take over at the Pentagon in July.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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