Panetta takes a slap at the GOP

Charles Dharapak/AP

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum used an early-morning speech to a powerful pro-Israel lobby Tuesday to accuse the Obama administration of taking too soft an approach towards Iran. Hours later, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta took to the same podium to issue an unusually pointed response.

“In this town, it’s easy to talk tough,” Panetta said, in a subtle reference to Republican critics like Santorum. "Acting tough is a hell of a lot more important.” 

Panetta didn’t mention Santorum by name, but he didn’t need to. The comments weren’t in Panetta’s prepared remarks, and his departure from the text -- and the language he chose to use -- was clearly intended to respond to the GOP candidates.

In his earlier remarks, Santorum told the crowd that the U.S. should destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities if Tehran continued its weapons push and promised that if Iranian leaders “do not tear down those facilities, we will tear them down ourselves.”  The former Pennsylvania senator trained the rest of his fire on Obama, accusing the administration of  being “reticent” Iran and mocking the president’s earlier promise to always stand behind Israel.

“He says he has Israel’s back,” Santorum said. “ From everything I’ve seen from the conduct of this administration, he has turned his back on the people of Israel.”

As one would expect, the comments drew an angry response from Democratic lawmakers like Michigan Senator Carl Levin, who said Santorum was trying to use a vital national security issue to boost his campaign. More interestingly, they also drew a pointed -- if veiled -- response from Panetta.

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