Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Monday defended the more than $800,000 that taxpayers have paid so far for weekend flights aboard military aircraft to and from his California home, arguing the commute helps relieve stress and keeps his “mind straight.”
The defense secretary last week admitted that he has paid about $17,000 of $860,000 in travel costs — about 2 percent — for the trips to California, where he served as a congressman for 16 years.
Although Mr. Panetta said he regrets the cost and will try to find a way to economize in the future, he said the nearly weekly trips home to his family´s Walnut ranch in Monterey, Calif., are important.
“I’ve gone home because my wife and family are there and because, frankly, I think it’s healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight,” he told reporters Monday at the Pentagon.
As secretary of defense, Mr. Panetta is required to fly aboard military aircraft for security and communications reasons,
“Normally, I’ve flown home commercially. In this job, I’m obligated to be in touch with communications and have to fly on a secure plane,” Mr. Panetta said.
In November of last year, The Washington Times reported that Mr. Panetta had flown home 14 times, continuing the cross-country trips he made regularly as CIA director, and had no plans to curtail the travel.
Each round-trip costs taxpayers $32,000, and Mr. Panetta is required to repay just a fraction of the cost — the equivalent of a commercial round-trip ticket — for the personal travel, according to federal rules.
At the time, the Defense Department refused to provide information about Mr. Panetta’s reimbursements and the Freedom of Information Act requests The Washington Times submitted were ignored. A Defense Department official said Mr. Panetta negotiated the commuting arrangement with the White House before he accepted the job.
“The White House understood when Mr. Panetta took the job that he would return to Monterey to visit his family, as he did when he was director of the CIA,” a senior administration official said at the time. “That’s where his family lives, after all.”
Earlier this month, amid outcry over wasteful spending at a General Services Administration conference that cost top officials their jobs, Mr. Panetta admitted to paying just $17,000 for his share of the cost of the 27 round trips, approximately $630 per visit.
With the drawdowns of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, constant terrorism threats and crises, running the Pentagon is anything but a 9-to-5 office job, and the California weekends help him recharge, a government official said at the time.
“He works virtually nonstop wherever he is,” the official said.
The president in November asked his Cabinet members to cut back on all expenses, from cellphone use to official gifts such as pencils and mugs to travel costs — a line item Mr. Obama mentioned specifically.
“At a time when families have had to cut back, have had to make some tough decisions about getting rid of things that they don’t need in order to make the investments that they do, we thought that it was entirely appropriate for our governments and our agencies to try to root out waste, large and small, in a systematic way,” Mr. Obama said then.