POLITICS

Leon Panetta sworn in as new secretary of defense

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Leon Panetta (right) replaces Robert Gates as the new Secretary of Defense. (Photo: Associated Press)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A day after stepping down as CIA director, Leon Panetta was sworn in Friday as secretary of defense. He began settling into the job by telling members of the military and their families they are "at the top of my agenda."

Panetta succeeds Robert Gates, who was a Republican holdover from the George W. Bush administration, and is the first Democrat to run the Pentagon since William J. Perry finished his tenure in 1997.

In a nod to Gates, Panetta wrote in a message to all troops and civilian workers at the Defense Department that he intends to emulate his predecessor's role as an advocate for the troops and their families. "I pledge to be the same," he wrote.

Upon arrival at the Potomac River entrance to the Pentagon, Panetta was greeted by his senior military assistant, Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who shook his boss' hand and said, "Welcome aboard, sir." Panetta, briefcase in hand, bounded up the steps and into his 3rd floor office, where he took the oath of office as the nation's 23rd defense secretary.

In his written message, issued moments after his swearing in, Panetta said that in his 2½ years as CIA chief he appreciated the military's capabilities, and he promised that as Pentagon chief he would do all he could to maintain that strength.

"Our nation is at war," he wrote. "We must prevail against our enemies. We will persist in our efforts to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al-Qaida." He mentioned that his arrival at the Pentagon coincides with the start of a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan on a schedule announced by Obama last week.

Panetta served a short stint in the Army in the 1960s but has never worked in the Pentagon.

In size, scope and spending power, the Defense Department dwarfs the CIA. And although Panetta is well-versed in national security issues, the magnitude of challenges that await him at the Pentagon — from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to battles inside the defense bureaucracy and conflicts with Congress — is hard to overstate.

After operating behind a wall of secrecy at the CIA, Panetta at the Pentagon will face brighter lights of public scrutiny.

Further complicating the picture for Panetta is the fact that Washington is fast approaching the 2012 presidential election season, as well as the expectation that he may serve only through President Barack Obama's current term. At 73, Panetta is older than any of his predecessors when they began their tenure as defense secretary.

He inherits the task of winding down U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq while guiding the Obama administration through a stalemated Libya conflict that has stirred up domestic political trouble for Obama. And he walks into an even more immediate problem: new attacks on the Pentagon budget.

"The president has a huge budget crisis going right now, and so literally on Friday when Leon steps into the job he's going to find himself in the middle of negotiations about budgets, and it's going to include defense," said Gordon Adams, who worked for Panetta when he was the White House budget chief in 1993-94.

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