June 9 (Bloomberg) -- North Korea’s ballistic missile program, nuclear enrichment activities and 1 million troops are a “growing and direct threat” to the U.S., according to CIA Director Leon Panetta, nominated to succeed Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
“I intend to monitor the security situation closely and maintain the capabilities necessary to protect our interests, defend our allies and deter North Korea,” Panetta said in written answers to questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee in advance of his testimony today before the panel.
Panetta likely will be asked more on Korea, missile defense, the pace of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq, and weapons acquisition costs. He faces budget questions just when Congress is trying to make cuts while maintaining a ready military hardened by the two wars.
“If confirmed, I will work to make disciplined decisions in ways that minimize impacts on our national security,” Panetta said. “But it must be understood that a smaller budget means difficult choices will have to be made,” he said.
North Korea was not explicitly listed among the top “broad priorities” Panetta said he’ll face.
Those were prevailing in Iraq and Afghanistan against al- Qaeda, keeping weapons of mass destruction from terrorists and “rogue nations,” preparing for future conflicts, preserving the U.S. military’s combat prowess and, finally, continuing the search for efficiencies that Gates has initiated “which will be crucial in this time of budget constraints.”
Panetta, 72, is a California Democrat who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993 and then as budget director and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration. He has been director of the Central Intelligence Agency since February 2009. He would succeed Gates, the lone holdover in Obama’s cabinet from the George W. Bush administration.
Panetta’s experience as chairman of the House Budget Committee and as director of the Office of Management and Budget would position him as defense secretary to implement the president’s plan to cut $400 billion in national security spending through 2023. Panetta said he’d have a “large” role in the review.
Asked about the national security implications of budget deficits during a Feb. 10 hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Panetta said “there’s no question that represents a threat that we have to pay attention to.”
Panetta, in his written answers, said he expects that “difficult choices will have to be made” to rein in defense spending and reduce the federal deficit.
Heritage Foundation defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen said in an e-mail “given that this nomination is a foregone conclusion, members are really only looking out for any ideological red flags and whether Panetta believes it is ‘when and how,’ not ‘if,’ we cut defense by up to $400 billion before the strategy review is completed.”
“The United States must continue to monitor carefully North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and missile development,” said Panetta promising as defense secretary to work closely with allies in that effort.
He also promised to support improvements in the U.S. missile defense program.
“The United States is currently protected against the threat of a limited intercontinental ballistic missile attack from states like North Korea and Iran,” Panetta said. “It is important we maintain this advantage by continuing to improve the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system” that’s deployed in Alaska and California, he said.
The U.S. ground-based system of 30 interceptors is managed by Boeing Co., and supported by Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co. Raytheon builds the hit-to-kill warhead that sits on top of 30 Orbital Sciences Corp. interceptors in Alaska and California.
--Editors: Steven Komarow, Terry Atlas
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