President Obama's pick to be the next defense secretary said Thursday the brazen operation that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden showed the world the U.S. would do whatever is necessary to take out its foes.
Leon Panetta, the current CIA director, played a big role in planning and overseeing the May 1 commando raid inside Pakistan that ultimately terminated bin Laden. That mission showed "the world that we will do what we have to do," Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to replace Robert Gates.
The nominee also faced questions on Afghanistan and the upcoming July deadline to withdraw troops. Several senators pushed Panetta on how many American troops he thinks could be removed this year.
Panetta said he "agrees with the president's statement" that the coming partial pullout will be significant, but Panetta told the panel he has yet to form an opinion on how many troops should be removed.
Gates has said he favors a "modest" drawdown.
Sen. John McCainJohn McCainTrump fires opening salvo in budget wars Overnight Finance: Trump budget to boost military, slash nondefense spending | Senate confirms Commerce pick | House Intel chief won't subpoena tax returns Overnight Defense: Trump proposes 3B defense budget | Defense hawks say proposal falls short | Pentagon to probe Yemen raid MORE (R-Ariz.), the panel's ranking member, pushed Panetta on whether he agrees with Gates, which the nominee ducked at first. But within his answer he noted in regards to Gates: "He and I generally walk hand-in-hand on these matters."
Panetta also offered his definition of what is the U.S. mission in Afghanistan: "The fundamental mission is to provide sufficient stability so [that nation] is never again a safe haven" for al Qaeda and similar groups.
He also said al Qaeda "still remains dangerous" despite its leader's demise, but noted "it has been weakened."
"We have to continue to pay attention to these nodes" of al Qaeda that have developed in other nations in the Middle East and North Africa, he warned.
Emboldened by the bin Laden killing, lawmakers are increasingly in favor of a sizable U.S. troop pullout in Afghanistan this year. They've also cited concerns about the escalating costs of the military and nation-building operation.
The House late last month narrowly defeated an amendment to a Pentagon policy bill that would have required the removal of all American forces.
Several Republican members, led by McCain, asked whether "benchmarks" and "metrics" should be fashioned to allow officials and lawmakers to measure how things are going in Afghanistan.
"If we intend to transfer security to the Afghan government, it's important to measure progress," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who intends to introduce legislation Thursday requiring such benchmarks be created.
Panetta said the idea has some merits and offered several potential categories: levels of violence; a way to track conditions in each district or province; progress in development of Afghanistan army and policy; and "governance responsibilities."
"Those are all key areas that I think need to be evaluated," Panetta told the committee.
On Iraq, Panetta told the panel "it is clear to me" that a request from Iraqi officials to keep some U.S. Forces there beyond this year "will be forthcoming."
Under an existing U.S.-Iraqi pact, all American military forces will be removed by Dec. 31.
Panetta, an old Washington hand and veteran budget official, also issued a warning to the Pentagon's vast bureaucracy.
The former Office of Management and Budget director and White House chief of staff said it is his belief that only way to manage such an entity is through "focused, hands-on management," adding that management style "is the only way I know how to do business."
Panetta also referenced the internal DOD budget-trimming efforts and hardware program moves Gates made in the last few years.
"Those are reforms I intend to carry on," he vowed. He spoke of bringing "discipline" to Pentagon budgeting.
Several panel members said, if confirmed, Panetta faces a tough task battling the Pentagon's bureaucracy in beginning to enforce a presidential directive to carry out $400 billion in national security cuts over a dozen years.
Sen. Carl LevinCarl LevinA package proposal for repatriation Silencing of Warren another example of hyperpartisan Senate GOP going nuclear over Gorsuch might destroy filibuster forever MORE (D-Mich.), the committee's chairman, pressed on how much of that amount the White House wants taken from the annual Defense Department budget. Panetta said he has yet to learn if such a figure exists.
McCain hit the Pentagon weapons acquisition system hard, saying the nation cannot afford "aircraft [programs] that double and triple" in cost.
Panetta responded that he agrees "fully" with McCain's assessment.
Levin quipped that the nominee has "got the background to really dig into it."
It appeared likely that the committee will quickly move his nomination, which requires the approval of the full Senate.
-- This story was updated at 12:59 p.m.