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Panetta bids farewell, gets salute from Obama

Calling it “the honor of my life,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said farewell to the U.S. military Friday, capping a venerated public service career that spanned four decades and included stints as a lawmaker, a top White House official and the spy chief who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden. President Barack Obama, honoring his first-term Pentagon chief at a ceremony at a military base outside Washington, said Panetta would be remembered for welcoming more Americans into the military by opening combat roles to women and overseeing the repeal of a ban on gays serving openly — “In short,
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Disturbing questions about U.S. use of drone strikes

CIA Director-designate John Brennan‘s vigorous defense of drone strikes to kill terror suspects — even American citizens — overseas is causing key lawmakers to consider lifting secrecy from what has become an important weapon in the fight against al-Qaida. Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top counterterror adviser, was grilled for more than three hours Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the drone program he leads, as well as on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques during the Bush administration, which he denounced, and on leaks of classified information to the media, which Brennan vehemently denied being a part of. Despite Brennan’s
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Panetta: America could become ‘second rate’ power

The United States is at risk of becoming a second-rate power if automatic budget cuts go into effect, plunging the U.S. armed forces into the most significant readiness crisis they’ve faced in more than a decade, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Thursday. Panetta, who is retiring soon from his post, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the reductions are allowed to stand he would have to throw the country’s national defense strategy “out the window.” But Panetta also assured lawmakers the Pentagon would take the steps necessary to deal with possible threats in the Persian Gulf region after
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Senators seek compromise on gun purchase background checks

A bipartisan quartet of senators, including two National Rifle Association members and two with “F” ratings from the potent firearms lobby, are quietly trying to find a compromise on expanding the requirement for gun-sale background checks. A deal, given a good chance by several participants and lobbyists, could add formidable political momentum to one of the key elements of President Barack Obama’s gun control plan. Currently, background checks are required only for sales by the nation’s 55,000 federally licensed gun dealers, but not for gun show, person-to-person sales or other private transactions. The senators’ talks have included discussions about ways
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Pentagon admits backing plan to arm Syrian rebels

Pentagon leaders told Congress on Thursday that they had supported a recommendation to arm Syrian rebels promoted by the State Department and CIA but which President Barack Obama ultimately decided against. Obama’s government has limited its support to non-lethal aid for the rebels who, despite receiving weapons from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are poorly armed compared to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army and loyalist militias. Syria’s 22-month-long conflict has killed an estimated 60,000 people. Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, has championed greater U.S. involvement and chided the Obama administration at a hearing, asking Pentagon leaders: “How
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Use of drones to target Americans raises questions in Congress

President Barack Obama’s choice to head the CIA faces a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing just hours after lawmakers are expected to receive a classified report providing the rationale for drone strikes targeting Americans working with al-Qaida overseas. John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief and Obama’s nominee to run the nation’s spy agency, helped manage the drone program. The confirmation hearing Thursday sets the stage for a public airing of some of the most controversial programs in the covert war on al-Qaida, from the deadly drone strikes to the CIA’s use of interrogation techniques like waterboarding during President George
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Republicans come up with plans to cut the budget

A group of GOP lawmakers from House and Senate on Wednesday offered a plan to cut the federal workforce and use the savings to replace some $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs. The legislation reprises a plan offered last year that failed to advance. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., leads the group, which agrees with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that a looming 8 percent cut to this year’s Pentagon budget would recklessly harm the nation’s military. McKeon said the Pentagon faces “dire straits.” The plan would generate replacement savings by
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Democrats offer their own gun control proposal

House Democrats will unveil 15 proposals for curbing gun violence that resemble President Barack Obama’s plan and will include a call for banning assault weapons, people familiar with the package said Wednesday. The Democrats’ recommendations will also include barring high-capacity magazines carrying more than 10 rounds of ammunition, requiring background checks for all gun sales and prohibiting gun trafficking, all of which Obama proposed last month. The proposals, to be released Thursday by top House Democrats, were described by people who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plan publicly. They represent the initial House Democratic response
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Obama pushing his programs to reluctant Democrats

President Barack Obama is trying to sell Senate Democrats on his strategy for tackling immigration, gun control and a host of fiscal dilemmas. Senate Democratic unity will be critical to Obama’s prospects for enacting the ambitious agenda he’s laid out for the start of his second term. Almost all the items on his to-do list face opposition from Senate Republicans — not to mention the even stronger opposition Obama is likely to run up against if and when the GOP-controlled House takes up those items. Senate and White House aides are offering few details about Obama’s appearance Wednesday at the
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CIA Director nominee flip-flops on agency torture

John Brennan, now President Barack Obama’s nominee to be CIA director, sat quietly around a conference table at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., during briefings about the capture and waterboarding of key al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah. Former and current U.S. intelligence officials who were part of those briefings say Brennan, then deputy executive director of the CIA’s administrative arm, did not raise objections to the interrogation practices in those forums. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the top-secret meetings publicly. Brennan’s silence may have cost him his first chance to lead the
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