Panetta doubts Israel has decided on Iran attack

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, right, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testify before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at the Senate Dirksen Office Building in Washington Feb. 14, 2012. AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he does not think Israel has made a decision to launch a military strike on Iran to thwart its nuclear ambitions.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, Panetta was pressed on the growing possibility that Israel would attack Iran. Israel has blamed Iran for recent diplomatic attacks overseas. Tehran has denied responsibility.

Panetta said Iran was a great concern and the U.S. has a common cause with Israel and the international community to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. He said the U.S. and other nations have taken strong steps with sanctions and stressed the importance of keeping the international community together.

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Panetta said that, as President Obama suggested, the administration does not think Israel has made a decision.

Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey also defended the Pentagon's slimmed-down, $614 billion budget, telling lawmakers it's time to show Congress is serious about reducing the deficit. Panetta warned lawmakers that budget cuts will hit all 50 states, but he said the reductions have been carefully planned and there is little room for changes.

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Panetta cautious on Guantanamo Taliban release

Panetta also said he will not approve the release of any Taliban from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison as part of Afghan peace talks unless he's sure they won't return to the battlefield.

Panetta told the committee that no decisions have been made on such a release.

The Obama administration is considering the release of five top Taliban leaders from Guantanamo as a starting point for peace negotiations between the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Taliban movement in an effort to end the war.

The five would be sent to custody in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. Congressional Republicans oppose the release. Dempsey said he backs reconciliation but worries about maintaining control of the released individuals.

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Dempsey: Egypt generals underestimated U.S. outcry on crackdown

Dempsey said Egypt's ruling generals underestimated the U.S. outcry and threat to relations with Washington after their crackdown on American nonprofit groups that promote democracy.

Dempsey told the committee Tuesday that the generals now understand the impact. Dempsey recently met with Egypt's generals and spent a day-and-a-half encouraging them to resolve the issue that could jeopardize more than a billion dollars in U.S. aid to Egypt.

Egypt recently referred 19 Americans, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and 24 other employees of pro-democracy nonprofit groups to trial before a criminal court. The Americans were accused of illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest in the country.

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