SecDef Called ‘Serious as Sh*t’ — But Start of Policy Event Was Anything But

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks at a Center for a New American Security forum in Washington on Nov. 20. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan is under investigation for a possible inappropriate relationship involving a woman who is not his wife. All U.S. generals are subject to an ethics review ordered by the secretary of defense. And the most-heralded American war commander in decades had to leave his CIA director over an extramarital affair.

What’s more, even Republican lawmakers who support staying in Afghanistan until the 11-year-old, U.S.-led war there is decisively won are beginning to question whether it’s worth staying through 2014, when President Barack Obama intends to remove most American troops. And Republican lawmakers last week roughed up the four-star general picked by the Pentagon and White House to lead that conflict.

This Intercepts scribe thought the last few weeks have been rough for the Defense Department. But Tuesday evening suggested otherwise. Or perhaps it suggested everyone in the room was just blowing off a little steam.

What was expected to be a staid and policy-focused speech after weeks of talk about sex and poor judgement began, well, rather oddly.

It was as if the events of the last few weeks never happened, or were collectively being ignored. The forum in downtown Washington began with former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy introducing her former boss…with the s-bomb.

Flournoy described her boss as always pressing even the most senior generals on the details of complex war plans. And sometimes, as is widely known around Washington, he does so with, as Flournoy put it, “colorful language.”

That line got ample chuckles from the audience. But she didn’t stop there.

No one in the ornate Willard Hotel in downtown Washington saw it coming when Flournoy declared her former boss as “serious as sh*t about defending the United States of America.”

The defense-sector attendees at the forum, of course, hailed with laughter.

But the odd start to the otherwise staid and policy-focused event didn’t stop there.

“When events occurred at the CIA last week, my wife immediately gave me a call,” said Panetta. But the defense secretary couldn’t go any further. He broke into laughter, as did the crowd. Panetta swayed at the podium as he laughed, but he quickly regained his composure.

“I hope that there is no way that the president is going to ask you to go back over there,” he said, again breaking into laughter. “I said, ‘No. Been there. Done that’.”

Considering the last few weeks, this all made for a strikingly odd first six minutes to what was otherwise a very serious evening, capped off by a very detailed and wonkish speech by Panetta.

After years of covering such events — and, unfortunately, events after other tough weeks for the military — this reporter would have bet against the civilian leaders of a military investigating the ethics of its current best and brightest celebrating bad language and joking about a scandal that, in the minds of some, stripped hero status from a former general once considered atop the ranks of its best and brightest.

But, again, perhaps we should just chalk it up to blowing off some steam in a room of defense-sector peers after a rough patch.


John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett