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Panetta comes to Hagel's defense after nominee's difficult confirmation hearing

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta came to the aid of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the man President Barack Obama nominated to succeed him, saying on NBC’s Meet the Press, “The political knives were out for Chuck Hagel” during his confirmation hearing last week.

In nearly eight hours of testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday, Hagel spent much time revising and clarifying his previous remarks – including a spontaneous error at the hearing itself on whether United States policy toward Iran’s nuclear weapons program was one of containment.

Panetta complained that the members of the committee spent too little time questioning Hagel about the current challenges the Defense Department faces, such as looming budget cuts, and spent too much time examining statements Hagel made in the past.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta comments on Hagel's tough hearing last Thursday before the Senate and brings up some questions that should have been asked.

Panetta insisted to NBC’s Chuck Todd that Hagel was “absolutely” prepared to take his place leading the Defense Department.

Panetta’s backing of Hagel was seconded by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, who said “in helping prepare him for his confirmation hearings, we had several opportunities to talk about strategy. And I found him well-prepared and very thoughtful about it.”

As the Armed Services Committee prepares to hold a hearing Thursday on last September’s attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Panetta said he looked forward “to presenting what we know about what took place.” Congressional Republicans have questioned why there were no U.S. military aircraft or other forces in proximity to Benghazi that could have been dispatched to help defend Ambassador Chris Stevens and other US personnel. Stevens and three others were killed in the attack.

Addressing the Defense Department’s airlift and intelligence-sharing role in assisting the ongoing French military intervention in the North African nation of Mali, Panetta said, “We are now working with France to make sure that al Qaida has no place to hide, even in North Africa.”

Dempsey added that in North Africa “the regimes that you used to maintain control over that space that would, in fact, be part of the solution of keeping al Qaida and its affiliates at bay are no longer there.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta discuss the threat of Al Qaeda in North Africa and regional instability associated with recent change.

The popular uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring, Dempsey said, “stripped that away” leaving “ungoverned space” or “a period at which geography is less governed than it used to be.” That lack of control has allowed jihadist groups such as al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to flourish.

Turning to Iran and its nuclear program, Panetta said, “The intelligence we have is they have not made the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon. The regime in Tehran is enriching uranium.  They continue to do that.”

He added, “I can't tell you they are, in fact, pursuing a weapon, because that's not what intelligence says they're doing right now. But every indication is they want to continue to increase their nuclear capability. And that's a concern. And that's what we're asking them to stop doing.”

Vice President Joe Biden said Saturday that the Obama administration is “would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership,” but that talks would need to be serious, have an agreed-upon agenda, and not be merely an exercise.

On the threat of spending cuts, known in Capitol language as “sequester,” scheduled to start on March 1 that are mandated by the Budget Control Act, Panetta said, “If Congress stands back and allows sequester to take place, I think it would really be a shameful and irresponsible act.”

He added that the spending cuts this year – amounting to about 12 percent of Pentagon outlays apart from overseas operations – would “badly damage the readiness of the United States of America.”

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta tells NBC's Chuck Todd if a sequester is allowed to happen it will "badly damage" the readiness of the U.S.

Panetta, who served as head of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton and as chairman of the House Budget Committee in the late 1980s, said, “As somebody who's worked with budgets throughout my life, in order to deal with the deficit problem, you've got to deal with entitlements. You have to deal with revenues. And you have to deal with discretionary (spending).”

Although Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona have accused Obama of failing to take the lead in finding a way to avoid the cuts required by the Budget Control Act, Panetta said, “I think he's pushing as hard as he can…. The president of the United States has indicated the concern about sequester. He's indicated his concern about maintaining a strong national defense.  And he's proposed a solution to this. The ball is in Congress's court. They have got to take action to delay sequester.”