UPDATED | Senior Defense Dept. Official Disputes Harry Reid's Claim from Senate Floor: Panetta Staying Til Successor 'Sworn In'

Updated below page break: Politico covers for Reid with an update to their story | Responding to a NewsBusters.org telephone inquiry, a senior Defense Department official reacted to the claim made earlier today by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that at noon today the office of Secretary of Defense would be vacant.

Panetta would remain on the job until such time as his successor was both "confirmed and sworn in," noted the source. This directly contradicts the claim made earlier today on the Senate floor by the Nevada Democrat as he complained about a possible Republican filibuster of the nomination. Reported Politico at 10:35 a.m. EST (emphasis mine):


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Thursday that Republicans have told him that they plan to block Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be the next secretary of Defense over demands for more information from the White House.

Senior Democratic aides said that Hagel’s nomination does not have 60 votes at this time to overcome Republican objections before a key Friday procedural vote, leaving the nomination in limbo ahead of next week’s Senate recess.

Complicating the situation still further was Reid’s announcement that the current holder of the job, Leon Panetta, would clock out later today.

“We do not have, at 12 o’clock today, a secretary of Defense,” Reid said. “It’s tragic they’ve decided to filibuster this qualified nominee — it is really unfortunate.”

Reid’s hope is that the escalating pressure and warnings over national security will force Republicans to bend on Hagel’s nomination — particularly since a few key GOP senators are holding out on an issue unrelated to the nominee’s qualifications: The president’s handling of last September’s deadly attacks in Benghazi.

At 11:41 a.m., Washington Times reporter Stephen Dinan noted, however, that:

Foreign Policy magazine reported that the Pentagon said Mr. Panetta will remain on the job until a new secretary is confirmed, undercutting Mr. Reid’s push for action.

A call to the Pentagon's press office by NewsBusters cleared up the matter, with a Panetta aide who asked to speak on background insisting that Panetta would not officially vacate his post until not only an affirmative confirmation vote but when said successor is actually administered the oath of office.

It remains to be seen if Politico will explore whether Reid innocently peddled faulty information or whether he outright lied on the Senate floor.

Update (16:24 EST): At 3:32 p.m. Eastern, Politico  updated their post in such a way as to cover for Reid's stretching of the truth. Here's the relevant excerpt:

Reid and the White House condemned the delays, seeking to heighten the drama by pointing out that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was set to fly home to California on Thursday at noon – though Panetta was to stay officially on duty and in touch with the national security apparatus.

Still, Reid said, Republicans showed they were willing to leave the U.S. without a top leader in a time of war.

“We do not have, at 12 o’clock today, a secretary of Defense,” Reid said. “It’s tragic they’ve decided to filibuster this qualified nominee — it is really unfortunate.”

The White House joined in as well — “These delaying tactics are unconscionable and they should end right away,” principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Chicago.

“We need our new defense secretary to be there. It does not send a favorable signal for the Republicans of the U.S. Senate to delay a vote. …It’s difficult to explain to our allies why that’s happening.”

Reid and administration officials raised the prospect that the U.S. might have no secretary of Defense to send to a ministerial-level NATO meeting scheduled for next week in Belgium, but the Pentagon made it known that, if necessary, Panetta would go.

Panetta did promise his wife, Sylvia, that’d he’d home in time for dinner on Valentine’s Day, and has regularly commuted home to California most weekends as he has run the Defense Department and the CIA. Defense officials confirmed Thursday that for all intents and purposes, he remained in charge.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters