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Panetta says Hagel prepared for Defense job

| Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, 7:52 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Republicans grilling Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel last week focused too much on the past instead of addressing more pressing military issues, departing Defense chief Leon Panetta said on NBC's “Meet the Press.”

“It's pretty obvious the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel,” Panetta said, according to a transcript.

Hagel, a 66-year-old former Nebraska senator selected for the job by President Obama, was grilled by fellow Republicans during a Jan. 31 confirmation hearing. Among other issues, he was questioned about why he opposed the 2007 surge in Iraq.

“What disappointed me is that they talked a lot about past quotes, but what about what a secretary of Defense is confronting today?” Panetta said, pointing to problems such as terrorism, defense spending cuts and cyber attacks. “All of the issues that confront a secretary of Defense, frankly, we just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues.”

Panetta, 74, said he is “absolutely” confident Hagel is prepared to take on the job.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to say whether he has confidence in a man “who could be my boss.” Hagel has “great credentials,” Dempsey said on the same NBC program.

In a separate interview on CNN's “State of the Union,” Dempsey said Hagel is “very thoughtful and very well prepared and very interested.”

“If he's confirmed, I'm sure that we'll establish a very close working relationship,” Dempsey said, according to a transcript provided by CNN.

Panetta, asked about military spending on NBC, said, “If Congress stands back and allows sequester to take place, I think it would really be a shameful and irresponsible act.”

“In a world of responsible politics, it should not happen,” he said.

Reduced funding for the military received renewed attention last week after a 22.2 percent drop in defense spending helped bring the growth of the nation's gross domestic product to a minus 0.1 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, the first contraction since the recession ended in 2009. The decline in defense purchases was the biggest since 1972, when military spending slumped in the closing years of the Vietnam War.

Automatic spending cuts that would reduce the defense budget by $45 billion this fiscal year will kick in on March 1 unless the Obama administration and Congress work to stop them. The Defense Department has said 800,000 civilian employees may have to be furloughed, losing two days per pay period.

“There's this notion that that's probably OK, because they're just a bunch of white-collar bureaucrats,” yet 86 percent of those affected will be outside Washington, Dempsey said on NBC. “This will affect the entire country, and it will undermine our readiness for the next several years.”

Panetta said he couldn't verify whether Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons.

“Every indication is they want to continue to increase their nuclear capability,” he said. “And that's a concern. And that's what we're asking them to stop doing.”

Were Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon, Dempsey said on NBC, the U.S. military could “destroy their capability.”

Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday the U.S. is ready for direct talks about the contested nuclear program as soon as the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes a commitment to negotiate. U.S. and Iranian diplomats haven't acknowledged bilateral meetings since October 2009, when they came together at a nuclear gathering in Geneva.

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