Defense Secretary Leon Panetta compared his exit from the Pentagon to an Italian opera at what he called his final press conference as the Pentagon's top man.
The former congressman and CIA director has seen the Senate confirmation of his expected successor, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., remain in doubt as Republicans planned a filibuster.
Panetta, who has already given farewells to the troops and Defense Department civilians, said he felt as though he were going through the last act of an Italian opera in trying to go home to his walnut farm in Monterey, Calif.
“You’re not sure when it will end and when the fat lady will sing,” Panetta said while expressing confidence that Hagel would get Senate approval by the end of this week.
In one of his final acts, Panetta phoned South Korean Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-Jin on the “highly provocative” nuclear test carried out by North Korea last weekend and renewed the U.S. pledge to defend the South against aggression from Pyongyang.
“There is no question North Korea constitutes a threat to the U.S.,” Panetta said. “Make no mistake, the U.S. military is prepared to take all necessary steps” to repel attacks from the North, Panetta said.
Panetta said it was as yet unclear whether the underground nuclear explosion in the North was of a plutonium or uranium-based device, and he also could not verify North Korean claims that the test was successful in miniaturizing the weapon for possible use on the warhead of a missile.
In response, Panetta said the U.S. would “increase our missile defenses to deal with the threat” and coordinate more closely with the South Koreans and the Japanese on joint defense.
On Afghanistan, Panetta said the U.S. remains on track to reach its goal in Afghanistan as 34,000 troops are set to come home over the next year.
“We will prevail” in the ultimate goal of leaving behind an Afghanistan that will never again be a safe haven for Al Qaeda, Panetta said.
As for regrets, Panetta said his main one was his inability to break the partisan gridlock in Congress that has brought on the threat of “sequester” on March 1, which could result in more than $500 billion in cuts for defense over the next 10 years on top of $487 billion already underway.
“The greatest concern I have for national security is the budget uncertainty,” Panetta said. The political divide in Congress has reached the point where “it becomes too personal, it becomes too mean,” Panetta said. “What you see on display is too much meanness. We’ve got to get back to the point where we really respect the institution” of Congress, he said.
Panetta also reflected on the raid by Seal Team 6 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011, that killed Osama Bin Laden, an attack which took place on Panetta’s watch as CIA director. Panetta said it was never a sure thing that Bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound, despite the impression that may have been left by the current movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Even as the helicopters carrying the SEALs lifted off, “we never had 100 percent confidence it was Bin Laden that was located there,” Panetta said. “There were a lot of questions and concerns about whether to do this.”
But the raid was approved for the chance to eliminate the threat that Bin Laden still posed, although there were also doubts about the operational control he still exercised over Al Qaeda from Abbottabad, Panetta said. “He remained the inspirational leader, and that continued to make him dangerous,” Panetta said.
Panetta said he signed off on the raid because of his faith in the SEALs.
“What made me confident we would succeed was confidence, tremendous confidence, in their ability to get the job done,” Panetta said.