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Associated Press

Panetta Shines Some Light -- But Not Much -- with Casual Asides about CIA’s Secret Drone Program

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US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks during a press conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. On Friday, Panetta joked to an auditorium full of troops at a base in Naples, Italy, that “obviously I have a helluva lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA.” Then he added, as an aside, “Although the Predators aren’t that bad.” (AFP Photo/Thierry Charlier)

NAVAL AIR STATION SIGONELLA, Italy — There was a time when U.S. officials wouldn’t breathe a word about the CIA’s clandestine use of Predator drones.

Now it seems that the veil is lifting, at least a bit.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — a former CIA director — is occasionally weaving the CIA’s unmanned aircraft into his remarks.

On Friday, he joked to an auditorium full of troops at a base in Naples, Italy, that “obviously I have a helluva lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA.” Then he added, as an aside, “Although the Predators aren’t that bad.”

And at a stop at Sigonella air station a short time later, he was ticking off the attributes of the coalition forces there who have been participating in the Libya operation.

Standing in front of a Global Hawk surveillance drone, he observed that the troops have used the unarmed aircraft in missions over Libya, as well as the armed Predators. And then he added that the Predators were “something I was very familiar with in my last job.”

During Panetta’s tenure at the CIA, the use of armed drones to target insurgents, particularly inside the borders of Pakistan, escalated and expanded. And just last week, a CIA Predator was used in a strike in Yemen to kill U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a key al-Qaida figure in the Arabian Peninsula.

The CIA’s use of drones to strike militants in Pakistan — largely those who are involved in launching attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan — has drawn sharp criticism from Islamabad and cries that the missions violate the country’s sovereignty.

At no time did Panetta mention any of the countries or CIA operations where the drones were used — saying only that he finds them to be a key weapon.

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