Leon Panetta: Worth The Price?

“I regret that it does — you know, that it does add costs that the taxpayer has to pick up. A taxpayer would have to pick up those costs with any secretary of state or secretary of defense.”

-- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at an April 16 press conference at the Pentagon defending his frequent flights to California.


Since becoming secretary of Defense in July, Leon Panetta has flown home to spend time at his walnut farm in Monterey, Calif. 27 times, according to the Pentagon.

Panetta is required by post-9/11 department rules to travel on a military plane with communications equipment, which Defense officials have estimated costs something on the order of $32,000 for each round trip to Monterey and back. The rules require Panetta to compensate the taxpayers for the cost of a commercial plane ticket: about $630.

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Of course, $630 wouldn’t get Panetta a private ride on a jet that leaves and returns at times of his choosing, but the secretary says he has no choice.

It’s harder to make that argument, though, when you are the one calling for deep cuts in Defense spending and also issue the orders that cause a soldier making $20,000 a year to uproot his family to the other side of the country or separate from them entirely. Privates shipped to Ft. Bliss don’t get to spend their weekends at home.

The estimated cost for all of Panetta’s trips is about $860,000, almost $20,000 more than the entire scandal-soaked, four-day, 2010 Las Vegas resort blowout held by the General Services Administration.

Panetta, the cost and nature of whose travels in more than two years as President Obama’s director of the CIA are classified, faced questions from reporters this week about the costs related to his desire to fly home every other week to see his family and look after his walnuts.

But today, the questions will come from members of the House Armed Services Committee as Panetta appears for an already scheduled hearing on the state of the civil war in Syria.

This is a very unhappy time for Panetta to be before the House. Not only are his travel expenses rankling deficit hawks, but lawmakers very much want to know about the involvement of elite military members in the prostitution scandal stemming from Obama’s visit to Colombia last week.

The sex scandal questions, though, will be easier for Panetta to answer. He can say that appropriate steps are being taken and that offenders will be punished for any involvement in the 21-hooker salute that reportedly took place at a resort hotel ahead of Obama’s visit.

Jet setting, though, is a trickier topic.

Panetta got the nod as secretary because of his experience as a budget cutter, especially his work cutting Defense spending as Bill Clinton’s budget director. Obama has envisioned the chance to spend on his domestic priorities a peace dividend from the end of the ground wars in Iraq and, eventually, Afghanistan.

But Panetta’s proposed cuts and calls for a much smaller military have not gone over well with most Republicans and some Democrats in Congress.

Making it worse is the fact that president’s Afghan strategy of a time-limited surge with a heavy emphasis on nation building is going very poorly. The news from Afghanistan is almost uniformly bad and even the sunniest optimists inside Obama’s war cabinet have been forced to abandon the 2009 talk about a strong, Western-style government in Kabul and a multi-national network of support for the nation.

The best-case scenario now looks to be some kind of functioning government that includes the less-militant Islamists from the Taliban, and minimal U.S. casualties during the drawdown in the months ahead. With public opinion running so strongly against the war, Obama must be eager to get out but still fearful of voters seeing troops retreating under fire.

Obama has timed the end of his surge to bring a large chunk of the troops – 30,000 of about 100,000 -- home before the fall elections, with the rest leaving in 2013 and 2014. This plan, though, depends on the help of NATO allies keeping forces and funds in Afghanistan.

Obama will host his fellow NATO leaders in Chicago next month, and he can expect to hear unhappy news on that front. With Europe gripped by recession and voters chafing under austerity measures there, spending any money on a war that is even less popular among Europeans than it is among Americans is seriously uncool.

With Obama’s Afghan strategy in tatters, elite members assigned to protect the president caught up in a sex scandal and unhappiness over proposed cuts, this is not a great time for the Secretary of Defense to have to defend why he needs downtime among the walnut groves.

Doing so while Congress is in a full lather over government waste and entitled-seeming bureaucrats, thanks to the GSA hijinks, is even worse

The unhappiest question that Panetta’s travel begs is this: Is there no other qualified person who could serve as secretary of Defense who would relocate to the Washington metro area for the job? Why are his services worth an extra $20,000 a week in average travel costs?

Panetta can expect to hear these kinds of questions today from the Armed Services committee, a fiery bunch whose members include Rep. Allen West of Florida and Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina.

Panetta, 73, may have cause to wonder whether life wouldn’t be better if he stayed among the walnut trees.

Quote of the Day

"I tell him, 'Baby, my cash money.'"

-- A Cartagena, Colombia prostitute identified as the woman in a payment dispute with a Secret Service agent that led to the exposure of widespread patronization of prostitutes by President Obama’s advance security team, recounting to the New York Times what she was shouting at the agent during the dispute. She told the Times she was demanding $800 and he was offering $30.

Obama and Vegas – An Unhappy Marriage

"You can't take a trip to Las Vegas or down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime."

-- President Obama at a town hall in Elkhart, Ind. on Feb. 10, 2009 talking about limits on spending by bailed-out companies.

“You don't go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage. You don't blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you're trying to save for college.”

-- President Obama, speaking at a town hall in New Hampshire on Feb. 2, 2010.

“Specifically, I ask that you issue a directive or letter to federal agencies indicating that this (informal policy discouraging government meetings in Las Vegas) is not a permissible consideration in selecting locations for government meetings and conferences. Every hotel in America is leisure oriented.”

-- Letter from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on Feb. 2, 2010.

“Before I go any further, let me set the record straight: I love Vegas! I did receive a little bit of heat, I know, maybe from some in this room, when I said folks shouldn't blow their college fund in Vegas. That wasn't a shot at Vegas.”

-- President Obama campaigning with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., at a Feb. 19 event in Las Vegas.

“…why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can. Ain't gonna last forever."

-- Email from Jeffrey Neely, acting commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Pacific Rim region, in an email inviting friends from outside work to attend a an Oct. 25, 2010 training conference at the M Resort Spa Casino in Las Vegas. The event for 280 agency workers cost $840,616.

“I respectfully ask you to investigate how many government agency conferences, from any agency throughout government, were held in Las Vegas since the Administration reversed its previous policy.”

-- Letter from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“Look, let's start by stipulating that nobody should treat the body of a dead person with disrespect.  However, this is a strange case because the victims themselves, suicide attackers, are people who did not treat their own bodies with respect.  They deliberately destroy their own bodies and turn themselves into body parts.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Programming Note

Power Play, the political note, will not be available on Friday in order to facilitate a district work period. “Power Play with Chris Stirewalt,” the Internet television show, will be available today and Friday at its regular time (11:30 EDT) – with its usual host today and on Friday, through the kind assistance of FOX News colleague James Rosen.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.