By Adam Levine
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Tuesday that he has no position on whether Israel will strike Iran by this spring, a denial of recent reporting by the Washington Post and by CNN that he believed that to be the case.
Panetta said he talked with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who reported earlier this month that: "Panetta believes there's a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May, or June, before Iran enters what Israelis describe as a zone of immunity to commence building a nuclear bomb."
In inquiring about the report, CNN's Barbara Starr was told by a senior administration official that Panetta had come to the conclusion there is a growing likelihood Israel could attack Iran sometime this spring. The official told CNN that Panetta was basing his conclusion on a "confluence" of intelligence.
Immediately after the column was published, Secretary Panetta told the press he was not disputing the story but, "I'm just not commenting."
Panetta was asked about the Washington Post story during his appearance Tuesday in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I usually don't comment on columnists' ideas about what I'm thinking. Usually, it's a dangerous game to get into," Panetta said. "I think as the president has suggested, I think we do not think Israel has made that decision."
But when asked by Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican, if he had been misquoted, Panetta noted that the columnist was characterizing his thoughts and not quoting him directly, but he did not say directly if he had talked about Israel and Iran.
"We talked, but we talked about a lot of things, frankly," Panetta said.
"You do not have a position as to whether it is likely that Israel will make such an attack this spring?," Wicker asked.
"I do not," responded Panetta.
Asked by Wicker if he was trying to send "some sort of signal to the international community, either to Iran or Israel," Panetta simply replied, "No."
The defense secretary emphasized the need to work together to pressure Iran.
"The international community has taken strong steps on sanctions, on economic and diplomatic areas, to bring pressure on Iran and to isolate them. And I guess my preference, my view is that we ought to keep the international community together in applying that kind of pressure," Panetta said.