He told Panetta, who served as CIA director before taking the helm at the Pentagon, “Your leadership of the CIA will forever be remembered for the b lows that we struck against al-Qaeda” and for “delivering justice to Osama bin Laden.”
Obama added: “Because we believe in opportunity for all Americans, the tenure of Secretary Panetta” as defense chief “will be remembered for historic progress in welcoming more of our fellow citizens to military service.” He referred to the 2011 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred openly gay people from serving in the military, and to the lifting last month of a ban on women in combat positions.
Obama spoke after a ceremony featuring military bands and honor guards, including the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps clad in red coats and tricornered hats.
“I’ve witnessed a new generation of Americans ask themselves what they could do for their country,” Panetta said after being introduced by Obama.
“We’ve kept pressure on al-Qaeda, and we’re going after extremists wherever they may hide,” he said. “We have shown the world — we have shown the world — that nobody attacks the United States of America and gets away with it.”
Panetta formally announced his retirement early last month, and Obama nominated Chuck Hagel, a Republican former senator from Nebraska, to replace him. Hagel’s nomination has run into stiff opposition from Senate Republicans, who accused him of being insufficiently supportive of Israel and soft on Iran during an eight-hour confirmation hearing last week.
“It’s pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel,” Panetta said in an interview that aired Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
In one of his final acts as defense secretary, Panetta testified Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee about attacks on U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans in September. Responding to questions, he and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they favored supplying weapons to Syrian rebels, a position that put them at odds with the White House.
Panetta also warned that the United States risks becoming a “second-rate power” if automatic spending cuts known as the “sequester” take effect as currently scheduled March 1 in the absence of a deficit-reduction deal to avert them, the Associated Press reported.
If that happens, he said, the U.S. military would face its worst readiness crisis in more than a decade. A forced budget cut of $42.7 billion from March through September, on top of $487 billion in defense reductions already mandated over the next 10 years, would leave the armed forces “hollow,” Panetta said.