Panetta Says Drone Attacks Protect U.S. From Terrorists

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. will continue to launch drone strikes against militant sanctuaries in Pakistan even if that nation’s government keeps opposing them, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

While Panetta declined to be more specific when asked about the unmanned vehicles because they “remain covert operations,” he said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Conversations with Judy Woodruff” airing this weekend, “The United States was attacked on 9/11, and we know who attacked us.”

“We know that al-Qaeda was behind it,” Panetta said. “And we are going to do everything we can, use whatever operations we have to, in order to make sure that we protect this country and make sure that that kind of attack never happens again.”

Told that sounded as if he meant drone attacks will continue, Panetta said simply, “The United States is going to defend itself under any circumstances.”

Drone attacks against sanctuaries of the Taliban and other militant groups in Pakistan are carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency, which Panetta previously headed. Pakistani officials have opposed the strikes, saying they violate their nation’s sovereignty and have killed civilians.

Stability in Afghanistan

The attacks are part of the Obama administration’s efforts in neighboring Afghanistan, which Panetta said is on the path toward stability so that U.S. and coalition forces can withdraw.

The country’s military and police forces last year “were operational, they were involved in the battle and they’ve continued to do a great job in providing security,” Panetta said in the interview.

Progress in Afghanistan comes against the backdrop of corruption in the country’s government and the persistent challenge of the militant sanctuaries in Pakistan, as cited in an April 30 report from Panetta’s own department.

“The Taliban is resilient,” Panetta said. “They’re going to be there. They’re going to continue to attack. We do have problems obviously with Afghanistan corruption. So I don’t think we ought to take anything for granted.”

Coalition partners are counting on Afghan security forces and governing authorities to take over as they move toward recalling most of the 88,000 U.S. troops and their 40,000 counterparts from other nations by December 2014. The Afghan Army, as of March 31, reached 194,466 personnel, close to its 195,000 goal for October. The police stood at 149,642 with a goal of 157,000.

‘Glimmer’ on Iran

On Iran, Panetta said he was hopeful a solution would be found to prevent the nation from getting a nuclear weapon.

Recent global pressure on Iran indicates “there is now at least some glimmer there could be a diplomatic effort to try and see if we can resolve these issues,” Panetta said. “There are serious talks going on.” The discussions have the backing of Russia and China, which previously opposed such moves.

Representatives of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. -- plus Germany will meet with Iranian officials in Baghdad on May 23.

“The bottom line here is that Iran has to make clear that they’re going to suspend any kind of nuclear enrichment, and that they will make no efforts to develop any kind of nuclear weapon,” Panetta said.

China’s Defense Minister

Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie will meet with Panetta on May 7, an opportunity for improving military-to-military relations, Panetta said.

“There are a lot of issues we have to discuss: talk about North Korea, talk about the ability to have free trade in that region, talk about trying to keep our sea lanes open, talk about humanitarian assistance, talk about proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Panetta said.

“And I guess what I’m hoping is that we can establish at least a process whereby we can communicate with one another on a peaceful basis,” he said.

The Pentagon intends to cut about $490 billion from previously planned spending over the next 10 years as part of deficit-reduction efforts. The defense budget faces an additional $500 billion in automatic cuts starting in January unless Congress and the president agree on legislation to block the process known as sequestration.

Congressional Leadership

“ I’m very concerned that the Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have to show leadership here,” Panetta said in the interview. “The whole purpose of sequestration, or even developing a crazy vehicle like that, was to ensure that they would exercise leadership to prevent it from happening.”

Panetta, a former Democratic House member from California, said the failure so far to reverse sequestration reflects the most virulent partisanship he has seen in 40 years working in Washington.

“Today, I think the attitude is that governing is not necessarily good politics, and the result is that it’s much more partisan and much more divided,” he said. “And we’re paying a high price for that.”

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