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Panetta: For sake of troops, Congress must act on "fiscal cliff"

As Democrats and Republicans in Washington hammer out the details for a possible deal to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today implored Congress to "make the right decisions and to avoid the fiscal disaster" that he said would otherwise wreak havoc on the Department of Defense come January.

Panetta, speaking at the National Press Club, warned that the Defense Department has already grappled with major spending cuts -- and that going over the cliff would have crippling consequences not just for the men and women of the armed services, but for the overarching U.S. defense strategy going forward.

After outlining a five-point strategy aimed at bringing America's defense program into the future despite "constrained resources," Panetta argued that the "greatest risk facing this new defense strategy" is "a political system that's depriving the department of the budget certainty we need in order to plan for the future."

"For more than a year, this department has been operating under the shadow of sequestration, this mindless mechanism that was put in place in order to somehow force the Congress to do the right thing," he said. "Because of political gridlock, this department still faces the possibility of another round of across-the-board cuts totaling almost a half a trillion dollars that will inflict lasting damage on our national defense and hurt the very men and women who protect this country."

The sequestration cuts, which are designed to go into effect in 2013 barring congressional action, are the result of a bipartisan congressional committee's failure last year to reach a deal to reduce the deficit. The automatic cuts threaten to hit the Defense Department with about $500 billion in reductions.

"Congress needs to make the right decisions and to avoid the fiscal disaster that awaits us," Panetta said. "My hope is that they will do the right thing. Otherwise, we we will weaken this nation in the minds of our allies, our partners, and our potential adversaries, and undermine the work and the sacrifices that our troops are making every single day."

Panetta, who is expected to retire within the next year, touted recent gains in the Afghan war, and cited a new "turning point" for American interests there: For the first time in five years, he said, the Taliban has not regained any territory that they've lost. He was hopeful about the 2014 drawdown, and the prospects of a successful transition.

Even so, he stressed that America cannot afford to neglect its defense arm in the face of a tumultuous and changing global arena.

"The threats to our security and our global interests are not receding, as they appeared to do in past wars, coming out of World War II, coming out of Korea, coming out of Vietnam, coming out of the end of the Cold War, where the threats receded," Panetta said. "The fact is today we still confront these threats in the world, threats that are more complex, more dispersed, and in many ways, more dangerous."

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