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WASHINGTON, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in remarks aired on Sunday that Senate opponents of Chuck Hagel wielded "political knives" to attack the man picked to be his successor during last week's confirmation hearing, expressing disappointment that issues important to the Pentagon's future were ignored.
Republicans hammered Hagel when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, with some of the fiercest questioning coming from lawmakers who had served alongside him during his two terms as a Republican senator from Nebraska.
"It's pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel," Panetta told the NBC program "Meet the Press."
"What disappointed me is that ... they talked a lot about past quotes, but what about what a secretary of defense is confronting today?" Panetta, preparing to step down as U.S. defense chief, added.
"What about the war ... in Afghanistan? What about the war on terrorism? What about the budget sequestering (looming automatic budget cuts) - what impact it's going to have on readiness? What about Middle East turmoil? What about cyber-attacks?" the Pentagon chief said.
"All of the issues that confront a secretary of defense, frankly ... we just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues," Panetta added.
Critics said Hagel did not perform well at times during the confirmation hearing, speaking hesitantly, seeming tired and often unprepared for some of the sharpest queries about his past controversial statements on Israel, Iran and U.S. nuclear strategy.
But the White House is standing by Hagel. None of the Senate's Democrats have publicly abandoned him, meaning minority Republicans would have to resort to procedural tactics to try to block his confirmation.
Hagel's nomination by President Barack Obama appears likely to clear its first hurdle - approval by the Senate Armed Services Committee - on a straight party-line vote. The earliest that vote could come is Thursday, Feb. 7.
Hagel is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who would be the first former enlisted man to lead the Defense Department. (Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)