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Panetta: savvy US politico to tackle defense budget

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) April 27, 2011
Leon Panetta, the CIA director expected to take over as the next US defense secretary, is a political heavyweight with a knack for budgets who will have to rein in the Pentagon's massive spending.

Panetta, who officials say President Barack Obama plans to nominate as the successor to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, will need to draw on his years as a Washington insider to tackle the Pentagon's gargantuan budget at a time of mounting fiscal pressure.

The next defense chief also will have to manage a troubled war in Afghanistan where 100,000 US troops are deployed, the planned withdrawal of the remaining American troops from Iraq and US efforts in a NATO-led air campaign in Libya.

If he wins Senate confirmation to the post, Panetta would be the first Democrat to hold the top US defense job since William Perry in 1997.

Unlike Gates, a veteran of national security decision-making who rose through the ranks of the CIA, Panetta has been steeped in partisan politics, starting with his years as a lawmaker in Congress.

While Gates sometimes sided with the generals in debates over Afghanistan war strategy and clashed with civilian advisers in the White House, Panetta may bring a more skeptical view of the Afghan conflict held by some of Obama's deputies, analysts say.

With his experience in Congress and as a budget chief under former president Bill Clinton, Panetta, 61, appears well-suited to take over at the Pentagon amid a push to contain the mushrooming deficit.

The vast US defense budget for 2010 stood at $663 billion, accounting for more than 40 percent of the world's military spending, and a growing number of lawmakers say the Pentagon can no longer be excluded from cutbacks.

As the director of the office of management and budget under Clinton, Panetta was widely credited with helping to balance the federal budget and achieve a surplus.

At the CIA, Panetta has won mostly praise from members of both parties for steering the agency to calmer waters, after the turbulent Bush era in which the spy service was seen as "politicized."

He also has presided over an aggressive escalation in the undeclared drone war in Pakistan, with unmanned aircraft carrying out bombing raids against Al-Qaeda, Taliban and other Islamist militants along the northwest border.

Panetta once obliquely referred to the air strikes as "the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the Al-Qaeda leadership."

But under Panetta's management, the agency was criticized for failing to connect reports about the failed Christmas Day plot of 2009, when a Nigerian man allegedly sought to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner.

Days after the attempted attack, a suicide bomber who the CIA viewed as a valuable informant killed seven agency operatives at a base in eastern Afghanistan.

The assault, the deadliest against the CIA in more than two decades, was a damaging setback that called into question the spy agency's operations.

Panetta has also faced tough questions from lawmakers about the CIA's reporting on the recent unrest in Arab countries, with some accusing the intelligence service of failing to grasp the impact of the uprising in Tunisia that triggered a political tidal wave across the region.

The son of Italian immigrants and a first lieutenant in the US Army from 1964 to 1966, Panetta took his first step on the Washington political ladder in 1966 moving from his home in Monterey to serve as a senator's assistant.

He found himself enraptured by a life in the corridors of power and swiftly moved from post to post, moving up the ranks of public service.

After a short stint when he returned home to practice law in California, Panetta was elected to the House of Representatives for the first time in 1976 and served until 1993, including four years as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

In 1993 he left Congress to join the Clinton administration, serving as director of the office of management and budget before he was appointed Clinton's chief of staff in 1994, serving for almost three years.

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Petraeus to head CIA, Panetta to lead Defense: reports
Washington (AFP) April 27, 2011
CIA director Leon Panetta will become the new US defense secretary, while General David Petraeus will replace him, in a major shakeup of President Barack Obama's security team, ABC and NBC television reported Wednesday. Panetta is to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has said he plans to step down later this year. The television networks reported that Petraeus, the commander le ... read more

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