Panetta on his future in the Obama administration: 'Who the hell knows?'

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had a blunt — but perhaps honest — response when asked by reporters about his future at the Pentagon.

“Who the hell knows,” the Defense secretary said Monday.

Panetta is considered to be among the senior Obama administration officials who will depart the administration in 2013. The 74-year-old served the full four years of President Obama’s first term, first as CIA director and then as Defense secretary.

Talking to reporters on his way to Australia Monday, Panetta acknowledged he’s looking forward to retirement, but also made clear that he doesn’t have one foot out the door just yet.

Still, he didn’t hint one way or the other at what his departure date might be.

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“You know it's no secret that, at some point, I'd like to get back to California. It's my home and we have our institute,” Panetta said, referring to the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

“But there are a lot of challenges right now with regards to defense issues in Washington, sequestration, budget issues, issues related to planning on Afghanistan and I think the president and I are working very closely to make sure that we meet those defense challenges,” he said.

Defense analysts say that Panetta is likely to stick around into the first months of Obama’s second term in order to help deal with sequestration and introduce the Pentagon’s 2014 budget, which could be in limbo over the across-the-board defense cuts. But most expect him to leave in spring or summer of 2013 as those issues are completed.

“Right now, my goal is to basically meet my responsibilities in terms of dealing with those issues, and that's the most important focus I have right now,” Panetta said.