ThinkProgress filed this report from Pella, Iowa.
Last week, newly minted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that the U.S. is “within reach” of defeating al Qaeda. Two months prior, then-CIA chief Panetta played an integral role in the hunt for al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden, which culminated with bin Laden’s death in a NavySEAL raid on May 2.
His work as CIA chief earned him high praise from Democrats and Republicans alike, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), who praised Panetta for “doing an excellent job,” and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who said President Obama was “fortunate to be able to call upon” Panetta.
But when Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich got to the subject of Leon Panetta during a speech in Iowa on Monday, he minced no words. After saying the United States is “in the biggest crisis since the 1850s,” Gingrich went on to declare that we “have a Secretary of Defense who’s living in la-la land.” If Panetta “thinks we’re winning over al Qaeda,” Gingrich continued, “what I’m really frightened of is he may actually believe it”:
GINGRICH: I believe we’re in the biggest crisis since the 1850s. You look at the spiritual collapse of America, you look at the social collapse of the American family, you look at all the problems we have economically, you look at the collapse of our governmental institutions, you look at our inability to control our own border, you look at the rise of China. And you have a Secretary of Defense who’s living in la-la land. I’ve known Leon Panetta for a long time. He is a nice man. But if he thinks we’re winning over al Qaeda, what I’m really frightened of is he may actually believe it. I mean, 10 years after 9/11 — I’m going to give some speeches on this in August — we’re in worse shape today than we were 10 years ago.
Obviously, Panetta is in a better position than Gingrich to know intricate details about al Qaeda. But even publicly available evidence suggests the terror group’s strength has been severely diminished. While al Qaeda’s membership is said to be in the mere hundreds in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, bin Laden himself thought his group’s influence was waning and even considered a rebranding effort. CNN terrorism expert Peter Bergen said recently:
“Between the drone program, losing the war of ideas, their relevance, the bench depleted by captures or kills, the lack of success of attacks on the West — all these things don’t suggest a great deal of strength for al Qaeda.”
But Gingrich is a lone voice of criticism amidst a sea of bipartisan praise. So widespread is the respect for Panetta, in fact, that when he was nominated by President Obama to become the Secretary of Defense and came up for a vote in the viciously polarized Senate last month, Panetta was confirmed by a vote of 100 to 0.
Indeed, Gingrich’s attack on Panetta for supposedly not understanding the al Qaeda threat, is a laughable charge. Just ask the 47 Republican senators who unanimously approved his Defense Secretary nomination.