Speaking off the cuff, Panetta raises eyebrows

  • Article by: CRAIG WHITLOCK , Washington Post
  • Updated: July 11, 2011 - 9:21 PM

The talkative new Pentagon chief has been getting himself in rhetorical trouble - the latest in Iraq.

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta rode in a helicopter over Baghdad with Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Photo: Paul J. Richards, Associated Press

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BAGHDAD - Just 11 days into his tenure as defense secretary, Leon Panetta has demonstrated a flair for making blunt unscripted comments. But his inability to stick to prepared talking points is getting him into rhetorical trouble.

On Monday, in his first visit to Iraq as Pentagon chief, Panetta appeared to justify the U.S. invasion as part of the war against Al-Qaida, an argument made by the George W. Bush administration but rebutted by the 9/11 Commission.

Two days earlier, in Kabul, Panetta told reporters -- repeatedly -- that the United States would keep 70,000 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014. That would have come as unwelcome news to the White House, which has pledged to bring far more service members home by then, and his aides scurried afterward to say he misspoke.

In hiring Panetta, 73, to run the Pentagon, Obama portrayed him as an experienced Washington hand: a White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, a nine-term congressman and director of the CIA from 2009 until last month.

Although Panetta won bipartisan plaudits for his CIA leadership, especially the handling of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, he was accustomed to working in the shadows. As intelligence chief, he rarely needed to appear in public.

As defense secretary, however, his movements and words are closely tracked by the Pentagon press corps, which has accompanied him on a multi-day tour of the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. In contrast to his predecessor, Robert M. Gates, it turns out that Panetta happily speaks off the cuff and doesn't seem to edit his thoughts too closely.

In an interview Monday with NBC News, Panetta gave a lighthearted explanation for his straightforward manner. "I'm Italian, what the frick can I tell you," he said.

During a 30-minute question-and-answer session with U.S. troops in Baghdad on Monday, Panetta used plenty of salty language. Nothing X-rated, to be sure, but no diplomatic politesse, either.

He noted that the region had "had a hell of a lot of turmoil" in recent years. And he said there was a downside to Iraq's transition to a democratic system, pointing out that the coalition government has dragged its feet for months in making decisions and key cabinet appointments.

"Do they want us to stay or don't they want us to stay?" he wondered aloud. "Dammit, make a decision."

His comments Monday about Al-Qaida and the Iraq war raised some eyebrows.

"The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked," he told troops at Camp Victory, the largest U.S. military outpost in Baghdad. "And 3,000 Americans -- 3,000 not just Americans, 3,000 human beings, innocent human beings -- got killed because of Al-Qaida. And we've been fighting as a result of that."

His statement echoed Bush and his administration, which tried to tie Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaida. But it put Panetta at odds with President Obama, the 9/11 Commission and other independent experts, who have said that Al-Qaida lacked a presence in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Pressed to elaborate, he said: "I wasn't saying, you know, the invasion -- or going into the issues or the justification of that. It was more the fact that we really had to deal with Al-Qaida here; they developed a presence here and that tied in."

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