Entries in Leon Panetta (50)


US Still Assessing Whether N.Korea Test Was Nuclear, Claims Panetta

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- At what he called his final Pentagon press conference Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. is still trying to determine if the North Korean test early Tuesday morning was really nuclear.

North Korea announced it had conducted its third underground test of a nuclear weapon that it called a “miniaturized device.” South Korea said the test measured six to seven kilotons, or about two-thirds of the size of the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

In his opening remarks Wednesday Panetta said he joined President Obama in, "condemning the apparent North Korean nuclear test." However, Panetta added, "We're still evaluating that to determine exactly, you know, whether or not it really was a nuclear test."

Nuclear test or not, he labeled it a "highly provocative act" that violated UN Security Resolutions and commitments made in the Six Party Talks.

"There is no question that North Korea constitutes a threat to the United States, to regional stability and to global security,” said Panetta. "The combination of a recent missile test combined with what apparently was this nuclear test, we believe, represents a real threat to the United States of America. Make no mistake: The U.S. military will take all necessary steps to meet our security commitments to the Republic of Korea and to our regional allies."

Panetta said the assessment of whether it was a nuclear test is ongoing, "but there’s no question that North Korea has continued to enrich fuel." 

"It should be of great concern to the international community that they are continuing to develop their capabilities to threaten the security not only of South Korea but of the rest of the world. And for that reason, I think that we have to take steps to make very clear to them that that kind of behavior is unacceptable," Panetta continued.

He urged the international community to take steps so North Korea sees how its moves are only isolating it further.  Earlier Wednesday Panetta spoke with South Korea’s Defense Minister and both agreed to continue to hold exercises in the Korean peninsula.

"We're going to continue to show the North Koreans that we are fully prepared to deal with any contingencies. We're going to work with both South Korea and Japan to try to develop the kind of defense systems that we need. And I think that we have to do everything necessary to increase our missile defenses with regards to that threat," he said.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Leon Panetta: As Many as Eight Americans Held by Al Qaeda in Algeria

Bloomberg via Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- The Algerian government has reportedly mounted a military operation to rescue dozens of hostages, including Americans, being held by an al Qaeda-affiliated group at a natural gas plant in Algeria.

According to British officials, a military counterterror operation is underway.  Reports that as many as 35 hostages and 15 Islamist militants at the facility in In Amenas have been killed during a helicopter raid have not been confirmed.  

According to an unconfirmed report by an African news outlet, the militants say seven hostages survived the attack, including two Americans.

In a statement, BP, a joint owner of the facility, said it had been told by both the British and Algerian governments that "the Algerian Army is attempting to take control of the In Amenas site."

"Sadly, there have been some reports of casualties but we are still lacking any confirmed or reliable information," said the statement.  "There are also reports of hostages being released or escaping."

Algeria troops had surrounded the compound in the Sahara desert, where hostages from the U.S., Algeria, Norway, Japan, France and other countries are being held by terrorists who claim to be part of Al Qaeda and are led by a one-eyed smuggler known as Mr. Marlboro.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told ABC News that as many as 100 hostages are being held, and that there may be seven or eight Americans among them.  The kidnappers have released a statement saying there are "more than 40 crusaders" held "including 7 Americans."

U.S. officials had previously confirmed to ABC News that there were at least three Americans held hostage at the natural gas facility jointly owned by BP, the Algerian national oil company and a Norwegian firm at In Amenas, Algeria.

"I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation," said Panetta.

The terror strike came without warning Wednesday morning when an estimated 20 gunmen first attacked a bus carrying workers escorted by two cars carrying security teams.

At least one worker was killed.  The terrorists moved on to the residential compound where they are now holed up with the American and other western hostages, including Norwegian, French, British and Japanese nationals.

There is growing concern Thursday morning about the fate of the hostages, and intelligence officials say the situation is tense.  Without the element of surprise, they say, a raid to free them will be very dangerous.

"They are expecting an attack and therefore, it's going to be very, very difficult for Algerian special forces to sneak in without being seen," said Richard Clarke, a former White House counter terrorism advisor and now an ABC News consultant.

Intelligence officials believe the attack was masterminded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a rogue al Qaeda leader who also runs an African organized crime network that reportedly has made tens of millions of dollars in ransom from kidnappings and smuggling.  He is known as Mr. Marlboro because of his success smuggling diamonds, drugs and cigarettes.

Belmokhtar fought in Afghanistan alongside the mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1990s, and lost an eye.  He was formerly associated with al Qaeda's North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and was said to be a liaison with al Qaeda's international leadership.  

Belmokhtar split with AQIM late last year over what other Islamist militants considered his preference for lucre over jihad.  He remains affiliated with al Qaeda, however, heading a breakaway group that calls itself the "Signers with Blood Brigade" or the "Veiled Brigade."

According to a Canadian diplomat who was held hostage by Belmokhtar, Mr. Marlboro is "very, very cold, very businesslike."

Robert Fowler was a UN diplomat in Africa when he was kidnapped and held hostage by Belmokhtar for four months in 2009.

"I was afraid for my life all the time," recalled Fowler, "when I woke up in the morning and when I went to sleep at night.  He's a very serious player."  Fowler wrote a book about his ordeal called A Season in Hell.

Intelligence officials say the situation would be much easier if all the terrorists wanted was money.  But Belmokhtar's group says it will not release the hostages in Algeria until France stops its military action against the al Qaeda regime that has taken control of the northern sector of the neighboring country of Mali.

"We bear the Algerian and French government and the countries of the hostages' full responsibility in not speeding up the implementation of our demands [to stop] the aggressive assault on our people in Mali," said the group in its latest statement.

France says it will not negotiate with terrorists.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


US Pledges Help to France Against Al Qaeda Rebels in Mali

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Monday pledged to aid France's widening aerial assault on al Qaeda-linked rebels in Northern Mali, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would provide the French with intelligence and airlift support and the State Department said it would send civilian contractors to the region as early as this week to train an African-led military force.

"I commend France for taking the steps it has," Panetta told reporters. "We have promised that we'll work with them and cooperate with them."

Panetta said he did not want to "go into all the particulars" about the nature of U.S. assistance, "but it suffices to say that it's basically in three areas....One is, provide limited logistical support; two, provide intelligence support; and three, provide some airlift capabilities."

France began military action Friday at Mali's request after the radical Islamist rebels began a rapid advance south. By Sunday, French jets had bombed training camps in militant areas and hundreds of French forces were involved.

Panetta said the rebels' push south had added urgency to the situation.

"It was clear to France and all of us that that could not be allowed to continue, and that is the reason France has engaged, and it is the reason we are providing cooperation," Panetta said.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Monday the Obama administration has agreed to help coordinate and train an African-led force, which will be structured under the West African regional organization known as ECOWAS. The force will receive a mandate by the United Nations, similar to the African peacekeeping force in Somalia, AMISOM. The United States has historically been the primary funder of AMISOM, but Nuland said it is too early to determine whether the same will be true for the force going to fight in Mali.

"It was France who was requested to help by the Malians," said Nuland. "They had the assets to do it. They were willing to do it. They are asking us to help them in a number of ways that we are now reviewing."

Said Nuland, "We have traditionally had relationships of burden - sharing when we embark on global security operations. It speaks to the strength of our allies and our ability to share burden around the world with them."

For months U.S. officials have been involved in discussions with leaders from France, Mali, and neighboring West African countries about the best way to proceed militarily against the Islamist extremist groups who seized the northern half of the country last April. The jihadists are accused of human rights abuses such as enlisting child soldiers and stoning to death women accused of adultery as they enforce a strict interpretation of Sharia law.

The top U.S. military commander for Africa, General Carter Ham, recently said there is evidence that extremists from other African countries have traveled to Mali to train with the al-Qaeda affiliate that has moved into the country.

Intervention by a U.N.-backed ECOWAS force wasn't expected to come for several more months, but late last week the rebels pushed further south to capture another key city. On Friday, France surprised many by immediately sending warplanes to push the rebels back and is continuing to go after rebel targets in northern and central Mali.

While France has greater political and economic ties to its former colony, the United States has long shared concerns about terrorists finding safe haven in the country's desolate northern region. The U.S. military has been involved in counterterrorism operations in Mali since 2002. In the past decade, Mali has been among several West African countries that received training from the U.S. military intended to improve security in the region by strengthening the nations' ability to defend against jihadists and rebel groups. The U.S. is also involved in intelligence gathering, with the frequent use of surveillance drones to keep an eye on extremist groups.

Panetta told reporters he could not say how long the fight against the Islamist rebel groups in Mali would take, but analysts expect it could become a long, difficult battle against the rebels, who are well-armed with the weapons that flooded into Mali after the fall of neighboring Libya last year.

"It will likely last for quite some time," said African analyst Mark Schroeder of the U.S.-based global security analysis firm Stratfor. "The rebels in northern Mali have been embedded among the local population there and know where to hide in the mountains."

"This is home for the jihadists in northern Mali, and they are going to fight for it," said Schroeder.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


US Ground Troops Could Help Secure Syrian Chemical Sites Only in Peaceful Situation, Says Defense Chief

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- At his news conference Thursday, Defense Secretary Panetta said the concern now about Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is what to do with them should the Assad regime fall.  Panetta said U.S. troops might play a role in securing the sites only if there’s a permissive environment in post-Assad Syria, but that they’re not an option in a “hostile atmosphere.”

Panetta said the current discussion is that if Assad falls, “How do we secure the CBW sites? What do we do to deal with that situation? And that is a discussion that we are having.”

Panetta explained the possibility of U.S. ground troops playing a role in securing sites this way: “You always have to keep the possibility that, if there is a peaceful transition and international organizations get involved, that they might ask for assistance in that situation.”  However, he said “in a hostile situation, we're not planning for that.”  Panetta explained further that a U.S. troop option to secure the sites depends a lot on “what happens in a transition. Is there a permissive atmosphere? Or is it a hostile atmosphere? And that'll tell you a lot.”

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Dempsey said the U.S. has done assessments of what might be needed for the scenarios Panetta mentioned.  “We're engaged in planning to develop options against alternative futures, you know, alternative future one, collaboration or cooperation, permissiveness, non-permissive, hostile, all of which would have different requirements.”  Dempsey acknowledged that training rebels was not one of those options.

Panetta said the “greater concern” about the Syrian stockpile is what steps the international community needs to do when Assad falls so “that there is a process and a procedure to ensure that we get our hands on securing those sites. That, I think, is the bigger challenge right now.”

His comments help explain why Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was back at the Pentagon Wednesday night after a goodbye visit a month ago.  Panetta explained that the visit was part of the ongoing discussion with Syria’s neighbors about how to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons if Assad falls.  The talks include “what steps need to be taken in order to make sure that these sites are secured and that they don't wind up in the wrong hands.”

As part of those regional discussions Dempsey said he’d spoken with his Turkish, Israeli, Lebanese and Jordanian counterparts. The U.S. military has a small military planning team in Jordan. “Messaging, such as our president did, that -- that the use of chemical weapons would -- those that would be responsible would be held accountable," he said, adding, “I think that Syria must understand by now that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. And to that extent, it provides a deterrent value. But preventing it, if they decide to use it, I think we would be reacting.”

Interestingly Dempsey acknowledged that scientists have told U.S. officials that the Sarin the Syrians mixed in early December can only remain viable for 60 days. “That's what -- what the scientists tell us...I'd still be reluctant to handle it myself,” said Dempsey.

Dempsey said preventing the Syrians from using their chemical weapons is “almost unachievable” because U.S. intelligence would require constant surveillance “to actually see it before it happened, and that's -- that's unlikely, to be sure.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Karzai in Washington to Discuss US Military Future in Afghanistan

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan arrived at the Pentagon Thursday for the first in a series of discussions with senior American leaders about the future of the U.S. military role in Afghanistan after American combat troops leave the country at the end of 2014.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta greeted Karzai with all the pomp and circumstance accorded a head of state – a 21-gun salute, and marching bands and honor guards from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard.

Topping the agenda for Karzai’s meetings in Washington is a discussion over the effort to reach a security agreement between the two countries.  The White House is currently considering the number of troops to be kept, with the leading options numbering between 3,000 and 9,000 forces, although earlier this week the possibility that no troops may be left behind was raised.

At the Pentagon, Karzai and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met for an hour. Panetta later described the meeting as touching on the United States’ “enduring commitment” to Afghanistan.

Later in the day, at a news conference with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Panetta said his meeting with Karzai helped “lay the groundwork” for Karzai’s meeting with President Obama on Friday.

Neither Panetta nor Dempsey would speculate on the options, particularly the zero-troop option, though Dempsey acknowledged, “We’ve said from the start no option is off the table.”

Karzai’s relationship with the United States has at times been a rocky one as he has sometimes made critical statements about the allied troop presence in his country. U.S. officials believe he has made those comments out of political expediency to improve his standing with Afghans and show his independence.

Coalition forces have been transitioning security to Afghan forces over the past year, so that by now they are in the lead for security in areas where 76 percent of the Afghan population lives.

Despite that, most Afghan military units still remain unable to work independently of the logistical and combat support provided by the U.S. and its allies.  The U.S. currently has 66,000 troops, with 34,000 troops from other NATO countries, serving alongside Afghanistan’s 352,000 security forces.

American troops continue to partner with Afghan troops in preparation for withdrawal, though the rapid spike in insider attacks last year has created new challenges.

It is against this backdrop that on Thursday Karzai assured Panetta that with the U.S. and NATO assistance provided the past decade to Afghanistan that it “will be able to provide security its people and to protect its borders so Afghanistan will not ever be threatened by terrorists from across our borders.”

Thursday evening Karzai met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for talks that would also focus on American security commitments after 2014.  After their meeting they were joined by Panetta for a working dinner.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


US to Send Two Patriot Missiles, 400 Troops to Turkey

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images(INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey) -- The U.S. will send two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey to prevent rounds from Syria from crossing the border, the Pentagon announced on Friday.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who signed the order to send the missiles while en route to Turkey on Friday, said the move will help in "dealing with threats that come out of Syria."

Panetta made his remarks after landing at Incirlik Air Base, where he addressed approximately 300 men and women stationed there and thanked them for their service.

Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters on board the flight that about 400 U.S. soldiers will be deployed to Turkey to operate the two missiles.

"We expect them to be deployed in the coming weeks," he said.

Little said "the purpose of this deployment is to signal very strongly that the United States, working closely with our NATO allies, is going to support the defense of Turkey," which he said, "is a very strong ally of the United States."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Is Syria's Chemical Weapons Threat Dying Down?

Department of Defense Photo by Glenn Fawcett(KUWAIT CITY) -- During his flight to Kuwait on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addressed the threat of the Syrian government using chemical weapons against rebel fighters.

While Panetta noted that the U.S. hasn't seen any new intel indicating aggressive steps to move chemical weapons, he told reporters on board that "we continue to monitor it very closely and we continue to make clear to them that they should not under any means make use of these chemical weapons against their own population.  That would produce serious consequences.”

The defense secretary said he would "like to believe" that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has gotten the message, but that optimism could easily change.

"It’s also clear that the opposition continues to make gains in Syria and our concern is that if they feel like the regime is threatened with collapse that they might resort to these kinds of weapons,” he said.

Panetta is in Kuwait to visit troops and meet with officials.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Leon Panetta and Israeli Counterpart Ehud Barak Talk Afghanistan, Iran, Syria -- and Friendship

MARK WILSON/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- At a joint Pentagon press conference on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak addressed questions about Afghanistan, the Iron Dome missile defense system protecting Israel, as well as Iran, Syria, and Israel’s security.

Panetta addressed questions on the timing of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and said the exact number of the troops that will remain past the 2014 timetable is still being decided.

“The fundamental mission in Afghanistan is to establish an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself and ensure that al Qaeda never again finds a safe haven within Afghanistan from which to conduct attacks on the United States or any other country,” said Panetta.

He highlighted the three missions for which the United States will need to keep a presence in the country: counter-terrorism, training and assisting the Afghan army, and having enough troops to enable supporting any American forces still in the country.

Both leaders spoke about the ongoing conflict in Syria, with Panetta saying unequivocally that the United States has not provided any shoulder-to-fire missiles or missiles of that type to opposition forces. He said the Pentagon continues to work with other nations in monitoring the country’s chemical weapons stockpile.

Barak said there is an “urgent need ” to topple Syrian President Assad’s regime.

“It’s criminal behavior on a global scale, what he’s doing to his own people, using jet fighters and helicopters and artillery and tanks, killing his own people. The whole world is watching,” he said.

Barak was blunt about Iran’s nuclear program, and said that while sanctions are working, he doesn’t think they will be enough to stop the country from building a nuclear bomb or continuing to menace the region. While not explicitly calling for military intervention, the Israeli minister expressed doubt that there will be any other option.

“In regard to Iran, the kind of physical attack option is an option. It should be there. It should remain on the table, never be removed,” said Barak.

“Of course, we would love to see some heavenly intervention that will stop it, to wake up some morning and learn that they gave up on their nuclear intentions or probably that the Arab Spring has been translated into Farsian, emerge in the cities of Tehran, Mashad and Isfahan. But you cannot build a strategy based on these wishes or prayers,” he said.

Panetta called the current relationship between the U.S and Israel “the strongest in history” based on the assistance America is providing, the highlight of which, he said, is the Iron Dome. Panetta marveled at how effective the system was during Israel’s recent conflict with Gaza, intercepting more than 400 rockets.

“Its success is a statement to the ingenuity of the Israeli people and to the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security. Today, I assured minister that our strong commitment to Iron Dome will continue into the future,” Panetta said.

At times, the press conference seemed more like a retirement ceremony or a chat between old friends. Secretary Panetta hugged his Israeli counterpart at the start of the conference and reflected on the “decades” of friendship the men have shared. He also awarded the retiring minister with the Pentagon’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award.

“Minister Barak is a battle-hardened warrior. And like so many great military leaders, he is fundamentally a man of peace, because he’s seen war firsthand. He recognizes that we must take every possible step to try to avoid war,” said Panetta. “And as he prepares to close this chapter in his career, I’m delighted to be able to recognize his immense contributions by bestowing on him the Department of Defense’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award.  Ehud, thank you for your friendship, for your dedication to the shared dream of a better, and safer and more secure future for Israel and for the United States. ”

The men also exchanged gifts. Minister Barak presented Secretary Panetta with a tiny Iron Dome model as a thank-you present.

“It doesn’t explode. It cannot shoot missiles, don’t worry,” Barak said, laughing.  “It’s just to give you a small memento of our appreciation for your support.”

Panetta returned the favor with his own gift -- a signed and framed photograph of the two men taken during his visit to the Iron Dome sight last August.

“I want to give you one more memento,” said Panetta chuckling as he handed it over. “This was at the Iron Dome site, and I wanted you to have that memento … representing our friendship,” he said.

Not missing a beat, his old friend  joked, “Yours is much more handsome.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Leon Panetta: Al Qaeda Weakened but Branching Out

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned on Tuesday that while the U.S. has been successful in slowing the growth of its number one enemy, al Qaeda, the terrorist group has still managed to extend its influence to other parts of the world.

In a speech to the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., Panetta maintained that the U.S. has done well militarily against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. However, militant leaders have adapted over the past decade, he said, “by becoming even more widely distributed, loosely knit and geographically dispersed.”

One of the regions where al Qaeda hopes to gain a foothold is Northern Africa, Panetta cautioned.  Already, there have been signs of its growing presence in Libya where a terrorist assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last September.

Without mentioning the criticism from Republicans who allege that news after the siege was altered to protect President Obama’s reelection bid, Panetta did acknowledge that “violent extremists and affiliates of al-Qaeda attacked and killed innocent Americans in Benghazi.”

The defense chief went on to say, “With respect to that attack, let me be clear: we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice those who perpetrated these attacks.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Panetta Explains Military Response on Day of Benghazi Attack

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke Thursday about the “Monday morning quarterbacking” going on about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and why the U.S. military didn’t act sooner.
He said military assets had been moved, but that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was over before there was enough good information about what had actually happened.  Not knowing exactly what was going on, he and other military leaders feel that “we could not put forces at risk in that situation”
For his part Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said there are reviews under way and it wasn’t helpful to provide “partial answers.”  However, he did say he was confident that “our forces were alert and responsive to what was a very fluid situation.”
Panetta said the U.S. military had responded quickly by deploying forces to the region.  “We had FAST platoons in the region. We had ships that we had deployed off of Libya. And we were prepared to respond to any contingency. And certainly had forces in place to do that.”
But Panetta said the “basic principle is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what's taking place."
Panetta said he, Dempsey and AFRICOM’s Gen. Carter Ham did not have the information of “who was on the ground in that area” and so they “felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.”
Did the drone flying over the Benghazi compound provide an idea of what was going on?  “This happened within a few hours and it was really over before, you know, we had the opportunity to really know what was happening," said Panetta.
Panetta and Dempsey both said later that U.S. forces in the area were on a heightened alert because of the 9/11 anniversary, but Dempsey pointed out, “it was 9/11 everywhere in the world.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio