Defense Secretary Leon Panetta caused an international stir Wednesday when he said the U.S. would seek to end its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2013, jumping out ahead of both the White House and NATO.
It wasn’t the first time that Panetta has made statements in his seven months as defense secretary that sparked headaches for the White House — as well as attacks from President Obama’s Republican opponents.
But don’t expect Panetta to change his tune anytime soon.
Panetta’s off-the-cuff remarks are a sea change from his predecessor, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who spent most of his career in the CIA and was calculated and careful in his public statements.
One administration official who has known Panetta for years said the defense secretary has always been "an independent guy" and leads the Defense Department the same way.
“I don't think he's the most careful speaker,” the official said. “He speaks off the cuff. I think it's because he's always been an independent player.”
A senior administration official said that Panetta “is a straight shooter who doesn't use inside-the-Beltway jargon when he speaks.”
“He's direct and blunt, which has earned him points within the administration, and with Congress, the military and foreign officials,” the senior official said. “That's an asset and helps the president when key messages need to be delivered. This isn't about being an independent actor. It's about having an authentic voice on the president's national security team.”
The White House found itself having to explain Panetta’s remarks after the defense secretary said for the first time Wednesday that the Afghanistan combat mission could end in 2013. Faced with a flurry of questions the following day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney found himself having to “clarify” Panetta’s comments.
Nothing had changed, Carney reassured reporters.
Asked if there was any “daylight” between the president and Panetta, Carney replied quickly, “Not at all.”
Obama was hammered on the right, as presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney said it showed Obama’s “naiveté” on foreign policy issues.
Panetta’s past statements have also led to Republican fire on Obama.
In December, Panetta said that Israel should “get to the damn table” and negotiate with the Palestinians, prompting a fresh round of Republican criticism that the president wasn’t standing together with Israel.
Republicans have repeatedly quoted Panetta on the devastating impact that the $500 billion in defense cuts through sequestration would have on the military as they attack Obama for allowing the cuts to potentially take effect in 2013.
Panetta has also caused some diplomatic dust-ups with his blunt assessments of foreign policy issues. It happened twice this week, when Panetta said he thought Pakistan knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding and after he was cited in a report believing there was a strong chance Israel would attack Iran in the spring.
Often when Panetta makes headline-grabbing statements, he’s committing the classic Washington “gaffe” of telling an uncomfortable truth.
“That sort of honest reaction is refreshing, especially after the Gates-era where he didn’t say anything at all,” said a congressional source who works on defense issues.
One former administration official, who has known Panetta since the Clinton years, said that Panetta gets the latitude he has “because presidents know he's incredibly loyal.”
"He knows who he works for,” the official said. “I think both Presidents Clinton and Obama know he's someone who will execute their strategy but in his own way. And when he does it in his own way, he's never out of line."
When President Obama tapped Panetta to head the CIA, it was viewed as a bit of a surprise pick. Panetta then moved into the Pentagon last July after Gates left — but not before he had taken down bin Laden.
It recently was revealed that when Obama asked his top advisers whether to move forward on the bin Laden mission, Panetta was the one who gave a definitive ‘yes.’
“The White House sees this as a strength of Panetta’s: the ability to be bold and make headline-worthy statements,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “In many ways this is seen as an asset, and once in a while it can lead to some risk like it has this week.”
Panetta’s background has been focused mostly on politics and budget issues, as he was first a congressman and then White House Chief of Staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget under the Clinton administration.
As a member of Congress, Panetta “could speak his own mind,” said the first administration official. “There was no one ever constraining him. He's used to being in positions where he's not constrained and I think that has carried over to his current role.”
Eaglen said that Gates was also skilled at getting out his message, but he did it in a very deliberate, intentional way.
“Everything that came out of his mouth had serious forethought, and you could assume it was given its proper weighing of the pros and cons in his own mind,” she said.
Lawrence Korb, a former senior Pentagon official and senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said that Panetta wasn’t looking for a job with the administration when he was tapped for the CIA position.
“So he can push the envelope a little more than somebody else who wants the job and wants to keep it,” he said.
Korb said that Panetta has been “a great asset” to the Obama administration, and that Panetta’s experienced political instincts are honed.
“On balance he’s been good for them,” Korb said. “With the Afghanistan thing, the American people want out. We’re getting out a year early — that’s great.”