Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Sunday defended not only his potential successor to lead the Pentagon, but also the government’s response time to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“This is not 911,” Panetta said to CNN’s Candy Crowley on State of the Union. “You cannot just simply call and expect within two minutes to have a team in place. It takes time.”
Panetta will likely face more questions on the Obama administration’s response to the encounter, an on-going hot-button topic fueled by Republican lawmakers, as congressional hearings investigating the attacks continue on Capitol Hill.
“In these situations, you’ve got to look at what we we’re facing, what we knew, what intelligence we had in order to respond,” he said. “Admittedly, better intelligence about what was taking place there would have given us a head start.”
The defense secretary, along with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, circulated the Sunday morning talk shows to also appear for another interview on Meet the Press. There, the leader of the Pentagon went on to defend Sen. Chuck Hagel’s hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week over whether the Arkansas Republican is fit to assume Panetta’s position.
“It’s pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel,” Panetta told guest host Chuck Todd.
Panetta’s harsh assessment of the Senate committee members’ line of questioning during the Hagel hearing extended to his opinions on how lawmakers in Washington handled the looming sequester. Major cuts to future defense spending are on the chopping block, coupled with additional funding cuts to the Pentagon already set in motion. Under the fiscal cliff deal Congress struck the first of the year, the Pentagon has a two-month reprieve before its budget would be hit by a $45 billion reduction starting at the March 1 deadline.
Panetta called the terms of the deal “shameful” and an “irresponsible act” on the part of Congress to allow the across-the-board spending cuts, warning that the loss in future funding would damage national security.
“If sequester goes into effect and we have to do the kind of cuts that will go right at readiness, right at maintenance, right at training, we are going to weaken the United States and make it much more difficult for us to respond to the crisis of the world,” Panetta said.
The outgoing secretary of defense also reflected on his tenure at the Pentagon, and one of the signature victories of the Obama administration: the killing of Osama bin Laden. He went on discuss the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which depicted the investigations leading up to the raid. Panetta denied accusations sparked by the film that suggested torture interrogations were integral in bin Laden’s death.
“First of all, it’s a movie,” Panetta said. “Let’s remember that. I lived the real story.”
“And the real story is that in order to put the puzzle of intelligence together that led us to bin Laden, there was a lot of intelligence,” he added. “There were a lot of pieces out there that were part of that puzzle. Yes, some of it came from some of the tactics that were used at that time, interrogation tactics that were used. But the fact is we put together most of that intelligence without having to resort to that.”
“And you think you could have gotten it without any?” Todd asked.
“I think we could have gotten bin Laden without that,” Panetta replied.