“I think the most dangerous threat to our national security right now is debt, very heavy debt, that we confront in this country,” Panetta lectured then-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a hearing in 1992. “I don’t question anything you’re saying in terms of the role that this country ought to perform. My problem is how the hell are we going to pay for it?”
Today the shoe is on the other foot. After directing the CIA for 21
2 years, Panetta took over the Defense Department in July, shortly after President Obama said he would reduce national security spending by as much as $465 billion over a decade.
A month later, Congress and the White House announced a much heavier potential blow: as much as $600 billion more in defense cuts unless a special congressional committee can agree by December on another way to reduce the deficit.
Panetta, 73, knew the first hit was coming, but the second left the Pentagon in shock. The military brass had seen its annual budget roughly double since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was unprepared for a decade-long reversal of fortune.
Since then, Panetta has led a full-throated campaign to resist what he says would be a “catastrophic” setback for national security. He has called the prospect of the extra $600 billion in cuts “a disaster” and a “crazy doomsday mechanism” that would “hollow out” the military with “a goofy meat-ax approach.” He has implied that he might quit if the Pentagon isn’t spared, saying: “It will not happen under my watch.”
His sharp rhetoric — including suggestions that lawmakers cut Social Security and Medicare instead of squeezing more out of the Defense Department — has turned heads in Washington, where some former colleagues wonder what happened to the exemplar of thrift they used to know.
“Apparently a mind-meld was performed on him, maybe while he was at the CIA,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who said the Pentagon budget deserves a buzz cut. “Panetta used to boast about the accomplishments that he’s now demonizing. It’s just excessive. I cannot rationally explain it.”
In an interview, Panetta said he remains devoted to fiscal discipline. The Pentagon, he noted, has demonstrated that it is willing to sacrifice for the good of the country by accepting the first round of cuts.
But taking away $600 billion more, he said, would force an immediate and deep reduction in the armed forces when the United States is still at war in Afghanistan and confronting terrorists, Iran, North Korea and other threats.