Iran General NewsPanetta fights off questions about a possible Israeli strike...

Panetta fights off questions about a possible Israeli strike in Iran

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New York Times: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta had to dance around a bit today about what he might have said to David Ignatius of The Washington Post, who drew some attention on Feb. 2 with a column asserting that Mr. Panetta was worried that Israel might well attack Iran this spring.

The New York Times

By JOHN H. CUSHMAN JR.

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta had to dance around a bit today about what he might have said to David Ignatius of The Washington Post, who drew some attention on Feb. 2 with a column asserting that Mr. Panetta was worried that Israel might well attack Iran this spring.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, tried to pin Mr. Panetta down – but to no avail. Once again, Mr. Panetta was not confirming or denying much of anything.

“Let me just read the way it begins,” Mr. Wicker said, reading the column aloud. “‘Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has a lot on his mind these days, from cutting the defense budget to managing the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but his biggest worry is the growing possibility that Israel will attack Iran over the next few months. Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June, before Iran enters what Israelis describe as a zone of immunity to commence building a nuclear bomb.’”

Well?

“I usually don’t comment on columnists’ ideas about what I’m thinking,” Mr. Panetta replied, chuckling. “It’s usually — it’s a dangerous game to get into.”

He then launched into a boilerplate summary of the Obama administration’s stance vis-à-vis Iran.

That was followed by a bit of sparring, captured here in the transcript provided by the Federal News Service:

SEN. WICKER: Do you believe there’s a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June?
SEC. PANETTA: I think — as the president has suggested, I think — we do not think that Israel has made that decision.
SEN. WICKER: O.K. Were you mischaracterized? Did you have a conversation with Mr. Ignatius?
SEC. PANETTA: As I said, the comments that are included in a column about what I’m thinking or what I’m, you know, possibly worried about –
SEN. WICKER: Well, but did –
SEC. PANETTA: — but it’s up to the columnist.
SEN. WICKER: But did he — did he interview you and –
SEC. PANETTA: We talked, but we talked about a lot of things, frankly.
SEN. WICKER: OK. Were you send — trying to send some sort of signal to the international community, either to Iran or Israel?
SEC. PANETTA: No.
SEN. WICKER: And so you do not have a position as to whether it is likely that Israel will make such an attack this spring?
SEC. PANETTA: I do not.
SEN. WICKER: All right. Well, thank you for clearing that up. And I will say that there were no quotation marks in that column, but it did — sounded a whole lot like a quote.

John H. Cushman Jr. is an editor in the Washington bureau.

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