Senate Panel Offers Panetta a Love Seat in Confirmation Hearings

Intelligence chief Leon Panetta refused to give details on how he will lead the military if confirmed as defense secretary, but told a Senate panel Thursday that the U.S. is on track for drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan this year.

“This is a time of historic change,” Panetta told the Armed Services Committee.

“We are no longer in the Cold War.  This is more like the blizzard war,” Panetta said.

With the U.S. engaged in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in the last 10 years, Panetta said budget cuts would be tough, but necessary.

“There has been no shortage of war,” Panetta said.  “Our forces are stretched by combat that has lasted nearly a decade.”

“If confirmed, my No. 1 job will be to ensure America continues to have the best-trained, best-equipped and strongest military in the world, in order to make sure we can protect our country,” Panetta said.

He gave few details on how the $761 billion budget for next year will include cuts, but did allow that he does not support an alternative F-35 jet engine.

And in Libya, Panetta said, the U.S. can’t afford to fail.

If Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi stays in power, Panetta said, it “sends a terrible message to other countries.  It tells them our word isn’t worth very much if we don’t stick with it,” Panetta said.

However, there has been no discussion about putting troops on the ground, Panetta said.

Panetta deflected questions from Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) on the number of troops that will withdraw from Afghanistan in July.

“I believe such a presence is necessary,” McCain said.  “The size and scoop of the drawdown … should be modest.”

Although several members of Code Pink and other war protesters showed up holding antiwar signs prior to the hearing, they settled down before Panetta took his seat, and the entire event was rather low-key.

Members didn’t put him on the hot seat, it was more of a love seat—from his role in hunting down Osama bin Laden to his experience as a former congressman.

Panetta, 72, bantered back and forth with Democrats and Republicans for four hours before the panel adjourned to executive session to question him privately.

If the public reception by the Armed Services Committee is any indicator, Panetta’s nomination as secretary of the Defense Department will sail through Senate confirmation before July 1 with little opposition.

“I can’t wait to vote for your confirmation,” said Richard Blumenthal, (D.-Conn.).

“The President has put together an A+ national security team,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-N.C.).  “I can’t wait to vote for you.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) kept his opening remarks brief, but allowed that he too will support Panetta’s confirmation.

However, senators took the opportunity during the open hearing to lash out at Pakistan .

“If they didn’t know [Osama bin Laden) was there, quite frankly, I don’t believe them,” said Sen. Scott Brown (R.-Mass.).

And Sen. Ben Nelson (D.-Neb.) said Americans are concerned about Pakistan’s “double-dealings.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) cautioned Panetta, who once headed the House Budget Committee, against severe budget “whacks” while the U.S. is engaged in wars.

“I hope we don’t try to cash the peace dividend in 2012 while we are engaged in two wars,” Cornyn said.

The current plan is to cut $400 billion by 2023, including $178 billion in reductions already announced.

“Days of large growth and unlimited budgets are over,” Panetta said.  “Our challenge will be to design a budget that reduces wasteful and duplicative spending.  But we don’t have to choose between strong fiscal discipline and a strong national defense.”

Panetta was first appointed by President Obama to head the Central Intelligence Agency in February 2009.  If confirmed, he’ll replace retiring Pentagon chief Robert Gates on July 1.

Panetta declined to answer specifically whether drawdowns in Afghanistan would initially number 3,000 or 5,000.

“If we lost in Afghanistan, we would not only create another safe haven for al-Qaeda and its militant allies, but the world becomes a much more threatened place because of that loss,” Panetta said.

Though the plan to draw down American forces in Iraq is on track, Panetta said, “If we are asked to maintain a presence, we should seriously consider it.”

“We must protect the progress we’ve made there,” Panetta said.

On torture, Panetta said waterboarding is “crossing the line” and that it has been outlawed by President Obama.

On cyber security, Panetta said, “The next Pearl Harbor that we confront could very well be a cyber attack.”

“My goal is to develop the capabilities and laws we need to approach these challenges,” Panetta said.