Panetta Faces Budget Questions in Senate Confirmation Hearing

Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ likely successor, is on Capitol Hill Thursday to answer questions before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Panetta has received support from both sides of the aisle and is all but assured confirmation, but faces questions over the future of a Defense Department managing operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and in light of budget constraints across the government.

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The New York Times’ The Caucus blog is liveblogging updates throughout the hearings.

Panetta said he supports “the commitment of the president to try to take action to reduce the deficit,” but did not directly support a proposed $400 billion in defense cuts over the coming decade. President Obama has asked for long-term cuts in the Pentagon’s budget on top of the $78 billion already introduced by Secretary Gates. Panetta said the U.S. didn’t need to “choose between strong fiscal discipline and strong national defense.”

Panetta said the death of Osama bin Laden, the “spiritual leader of al-Qaida,” impacted their operations but that the network remains dangerous and we “have to pay attention to these nodes that are developing” in places like Yemen and North Africa.

He also said the U.S. needs to work on building a “relationship of trust with Pakistanis” because “it is in the interest of both countries” because both nations are threatened by the existence of terrorist groups. Panetta described the U.S.-Pakistan alliance as among the “most critical and yet one of the most complicated and frustrating relationships” the U.S. has.

Answering a question from Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., about the worst-case outcomes for Afghanistan, Panetta said “We not only create another safe haven for al-Qaida and their militant allies, but the world becomes a much more threatened place because of that loss, particularly in that region.”

Addressing concerns about sustainability, Panetta said Afghanistan’s government needs to begin raising the revenue it would need to cover its own expenses.

With regard to U.S.-supported NATO air strikes on Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya and a possible post-Gadhafi political plan, Panetta said “we have a lot more work to do in order to ensure that if Gadhafi does step down, Libya will be a stable country,” but said he felt confident leaders could emerge from the current opposition coalition.