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Leon Panetta On Chuck Hagel Hearing: 'Political Knives Were Out'

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WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday he was disappointed with senators' handling of the hearing on Chuck Hagel, the nominee to succeed him at the Department of Defense, and the seemingly political motivation for their attacks.

"It's pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel," Panetta said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"What disappointed me was that they talked a lot about past quotes, but what about what a secretary of defense is confronting today?" Panetta said. "What about the war in Afghanistan? What about the war on terrorism? What about the budget sequester and what impact it's going to have on readiness? What about Middle East turmoil? What about cyber attacks? All of the issues that confront a secretary of defense, frankly those were -- we just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues, and in the end that's what counts."

Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, appeared last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he was repeatedly asked about Israel, Iran and the Iraq war -- for which he voted as a senator but later opposed. The nominee gave largely conciliatory answers.

It was near universally judged to be a poor showing, either because of the harsh line of questioning or because of Hagel's seeming unpreparedness. New York Times columnist David Brooks said on "Meet the Press" that Hagel performed poorly and should have defended himself better.

"Do you ever have this nightmare where you're back in college, you've been nominated to be the defense secretary and you haven't done any of the studying all term, and the confirmation hearing is in five minutes?" Brooks joked.

Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary to President Barack Obama, also criticized Hagel's performance.

"The disconcerting thing, obviously, for anybody that watched it was he seemed unimpressive and unprepared on the questions that, quite frankly, he knew was coming," Gibbs said on "Meet the Press."

The White House has defended Hagel, whose confirmation will soon receive a vote in the full Senate. Multiple Republicans have said they will oppose Hagel, while others have said they are likely to. But so far, no senator has said he or she will block the nomination.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), speaking Sunday on ABC's "This Week," said that he is confident Hagel will be confirmed and that the nominee is being unfairly judged.

"This is a short interview we have. But if you interviewed me for eight hours like they interviewed him in the Senate this week, we'd -- you and I would both flub up a little bit," he told "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos. "This was eight hours," he added later. "Give the guy a break. I thought he did pretty good."

Others wouldn't go quite that far. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on "Meet the Press" that he had spent time with Hagel to help him prepare for the hearing and found him to be thoughtful about strategy. Host Chuck Todd asked whether Hagel's answers to the committee sounded as good as the answers he gave to Dempsey.

"I'm not going to grade his homework," Dempsey replied. "But I will say that in my conversations with him, he was well-prepared, articulate, concise."

Todd interrupted to ask if he was confident Hagel could do the job.

"I'm not going to speak about confidence," Dempsey said. "He could be my boss. When was the last time you saw a subordinate discuss their confidence in their potential boss? But I think he's got great credentials. My personal contacts with him have been very positive. And if he's confirmed, I look forward to working with him."

Even Panetta would not say he thought Hagel seemed well-prepared during his Senate hearing. Panetta quickly deflected that question during an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union."

"I know Chuck Hagel, and I think that he's got good experience with regards to public service. He understands the issues of the Defense Department," Panetta said. "I think he'll be a great secretary of defense."

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