Sen. Graham: Either Panetta testifies on Libya or I put hold on Hagel nomination

The Senate’s Armed Services panel is calling for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to testify on last year’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya — an appearance that could be key to his successor’s Senate confirmation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he would place a hold on President Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to lead the Pentagon unless Panetta testifies on what the Pentagon did before, during and after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi that left four Americans dead.

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In an interview with Fox News’s “On the Record,” Graham said he would “absolutely” block Hagel unless Panetta testifies — making him the first Republican threatening to filibuster or hold Hagel’s nomination as Defense secretary.

“The one thing I’m not going to do is vote on a new secretary of Defense until the old secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, who I like very much, testifies about what happened in Benghazi,” Graham said on Monday.

“Hillary Clinton got away with murder, in my view,” he said, referring to the secretary of State’s testimony before Congress last week. “She said they had a clear-eyed view of the threats. How could you have a clear-eyed view of the threats in Benghazi when you didn’t know about the ambassador’s cable coming back from Libya?”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Tuesday that Graham’s threat to block Hagel likely would not need to be acted on, however, telling reporters that a hearing with Panetta on Benghazi was already in the works.

Levin said that a Benghazi hearing would take place before Hagel’s nomination went to the Senate floor, though the committee might still vote on Hagel beforehand.

“We don’t have a date yet, but we are doing it,” Levin said Tuesday. “I committed long ago to have a hearing on Benghazi.”

Hagel’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Graham made a similar threat against President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, when Brennan was nominated earlier this month, but this was the first time he’d suggested he’d also block Hagel over the Sept. 11 attack. While Brennan was part of the Obama administration during last year’s attack, Hagel was not.

Clinton testified before both the House and Senate Foreign Relations committees last week, one day before Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) confirmation hearings to succeed Clinton.

When asked Tuesday, Pentagon press secretary George Little did not say whether Panetta would testify before Congress. The request had been received, he said, and discussions with the committee were ongoing.

“I haven’t heard whether or not there’s intent to do that, but we will respond, of course, to the request that came in,” Little said at a Pentagon press briefing Tuesday.

“We have been very forthcoming with the United States Congress on the U.S. military response to the incident in Benghazi, and we’ll continue to provide as much information as we can,” Little said.

Levin said the Benghazi hearing would not delay Hagel’s confirmation — but he also made clear that it would not be fast-tracked to the Senate floor like Kerry’s has been this week.

When Graham was informed of the news that Panetta was asked to testify before the Armed Services panel, he said that would satisfy his concerns over Hagel.

“I’m happy as a clam then,” Graham said.

Graham said on Fox News that he wanted to know from Panetta why no military assets were available on Sept. 11 when the U.S. facility in Libya came under attack.

Panetta has said that the intelligence was too murky for the U.S. to send military assets into Libya.

On Hagel’s nomination itself, Graham said that what Hagel says at the hearing would determine how he votes. Graham has been highly critical of Obama’s Defense nominee, but has stopped short of saying he opposes him.

Graham, who will question Hagel as an Armed Services panel member, said he met with Hagel for about 20 minutes on Tuesday.

"I like Chuck. I find him to be a good person,” Graham said. “I don’t question his honesty or integrity. My differences will be over policy.”

--This report was originally published at 11:21 a.m. and last updated at 7:53 p.m.