(CNN) – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended Sunday former Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, on CNN's "State of the Union." Hagel faced tough questioning at Senate confirmation hearings last week.
The top military officials also weighed in on the 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan, saying the troop withdrawal will largely depend on the strength of the country’s security forces.
Hagel was sharply criticized by some senators for seeming ill-prepared for the hours-long grilling on Thursday.
“These hearings are tough, and, especially when everybody is targeting you,” Panetta said. “I guess I was really disappointed that a lot of that hearing focused on the past, as opposed to the challenges that a secretary of defense has to confront.”
Hagel has taken heat for previous positions and statements, in particular his opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran and his refusal to sign letters of solidarity with Israel. The former Republican senator from Nebraska said during the hearings that he supports the president’s sanctions strategy against Iran and argued he was a fierce defender of Israel.
Panetta said he wished the hearings had covered more ground than just Hagel’s controversial statements from the past.
“There are a number of areas that simply were not that well covered, that deal with what a secretary of defense has to do. And that concerned me,” he told CNN’s chief political correspondent Candy Crowley.
As examples, he mentioned the war in Afghanistan, budgetary problems in the military, challenges in the Middle East, and cyberthreats.
Dempsey agreed with Panetta on what was missing from the hearings. “And in my contacts with the senator, Sen. Hagel, and his preparations, I found him to be very thoughtful and very well prepared and very interested.”
“And so if he's confirmed, I'm sure that we'll establish a very close working relationship,” Dempsey said.
The Senate could vote on Hagel’s confirmation on Thursday, Sen. Mark Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters last week.
Asked if he thought Hagel was prepared, Panetta didn’t give a “yes” or “no” answer but said Hagel understands “the issues at the Defense Department, and I think he'll be a great secretary of defense.”
Last Sunday, former CIA Director Michael Hayden argued the president’s new defense team thinks “more like” him on foreign policy issues.
“This is going to be a team that might not push back as much with regard to cuts or withdrawals or smaller footprints or reluctance to deal with big footprints into new areas,” Hayden said on “State of the Union.”
Panetta disagreed, saying he expects Secretary of State John Kerry and Hagel to “push back on the issues.”
“In the Situation Room, everybody has to give their honest views,” he said. “And I think they won't hesitate to give their honest views.”
As for expectations of the drawdown in Afghanistan after 2014, Dempsey said he hasn’t heard anyone suggest that all 60,000 U.S. troops would be pulled immediately.
“No one has ever suggested zero to me,” he said. “(Gen.) John Allen has got a very well thought out campaign plan. … Retrograde, we've got a pretty significant challenge of getting ourselves out of Afghanistan in terms of equipment and force protection.”
Panetta said the number of troops that will be pulled will depend on the strength of the Afghan security forces. Currently, he said, they have 352,000 enlisted troops.
“My instinct (is) that their development is moving at a pace and their acceptance of responsibility is moving at a pace that our numbers after '14 can be - can be modest,” Dempsey added, though neither he nor Panetta would give a specific number of U.S. forces post 2014.
Pressed further, Dempsey said: “Look, we're in the business of negotiating with ourselves and John Allen the mission and how best to accomplish it, trying to look two years into the future. We really don't have a number selected yet.”
– CNN's Dana Bash and Rachel Streitfeld contributed to this report.
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