WASHINGTON — Leon E. Panetta, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense, deflected persistent questions Thursday about one of the most pressing issues at the Pentagon, the scope of the American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan next month.
Panetta, who is now director of the Central Intelligence Agency, did say during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee that he agreed with a recent statement by Obama that the troop withdrawals should be “significant.” But Panetta, who would be expected to publicly echo the president, did not define “significant” or offer any hint of his own opinion about how many troops should come home in July, when he is scheduled to be in his new office at the Pentagon.
He also declined to say whether he agreed with recent and repeated statements from the departing defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, that American withdrawals in July should be “modest.” (Gates kept it up Thursday in Brussels, where he assured NATO that “there will be no rush to the exits” and that military pressure on the Taliban would not relent for at least six months.)
At one point in the Senate committee hearing, Panetta even said, to the irritation of Sen. John McCain, that the decision on how many troops to be withdrawn in July would be in the hands of Obama, Gates and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, rather than his own. Obama is expected to announce the number this month. Gates’ last day in the job will be June 30, and Panetta is to take over on July 1.
“If I’m confirmed, I’ll have to obviously arrive at a decision myself,” Panetta told McCain, R-Ariz. “I’m not in that position now. Obviously, I have tremendous admiration for Secretary Gates. But with regards to specific numbers …”
At that point McCain cut him off. “I wasn’t asking for specific numbers,” he shot back.
Overall, the hearing was a pro-forma step on the way to all but certain confirmation by the Senate — and a celebration of Panetta, a creature of Washington who has served here as a congressman, a White House chief of staff, a White House budget director, a member of the Iraq Study Group and most recently as the director of a spy agency with ever closer ties to the military.
His nomination and the revolving jobs of the men around him reflect the melding of the military and intelligence worlds since the attacks of Sept. 11: Petraeus is Obama’s nominee to replace Panetta at the CIA and Gates, a longtime friend of Panetta’s, is a former CIA director. Panetta, a former Army intelligence officer, has a son, James, who is a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve and was awarded a Bronze Star for his work as an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan in 2008.