Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks yesterday at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, DC.

Story highlights

Panetta had an exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama

Sessions: Congress circumvented when Obama joined NATO coalition in Libya

Panetta said, "You know, our goal would be to seek international permission"

Sessions "baffled by the idea" that international group must approve U.S. combat

CNN  — 

The Pentagon tried to clarify remarks made by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, when he told a Senate committtee on Wednesday that the U.S. military is seeking “permission” from a foreign organization to intervene in Syria.

“He was re-emphasizing the need for an international mandate. We are not ceding U.S. decision-making authority to some foreign body,” a defense official told CNN.

In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta had an exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, who said Congress was circumvented when Obama decided to join the NATO coalition in Libya.

Sessions said, “We spend our time worrying about the U.N., the Arab League, NATO and too little time, in my opinion, worrying about the elected representatives of the United States. As you go forward, will you consult with the United States Congress?”

Panetta replied, “You know, our goal would be to seek international permission. And we would come to the Congress and inform you and determine how best to approach this, whether or not we would want to get permission from the Congress.”

Latching onto the words “permission” and “inform,” Sessions ripped into Panetta: “Well I’m troubled by that. I think it does weaken the ability of the United States to lead. I do think ultimately you need the legal authority from the United States of America, not from any other extra-territorial group that might assemble.”

But even when Sessions gave Panetta a chance to clarify, Panetta continued to say the U.S. would seek “permission” so that there was a legal basis to act.

“I’m really baffled by the idea that somehow an international assembly provides a legal basis for the United States military to be deployed in combat,” Sessions said. “I don’t believe it’s close to being correct. They provide no legal authority. The only legal authority that’s required to deploy the United States military is of the Congress and the president and the law and the Constitution.”

After the exchange, committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, tried to help Panetta clarify further.

“I don’t think the word permission is appropriate even in that context. By the way, I think what – you really corrected it when you said a legal basis in international law would help you achieve an international coalition,” Levin said.

“That’s correct,” Panetta responded.

After the hearing, Sen. Sessions told Security Clearance in an interview that Panetta’s comments were “very revealing of the mindset” of the administration. Panetta “seemed so natural in expressing it as if he didn’t understand this went against” the fundamentals of our government.

While Sessions said he does not think the U.S. should act alone, he said there are indications that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is gaining momentum and “the window of opportunity could be closed.”

“The delays that are taking place out of a determination to get a major worldwide support, I suppose could be costly,” Sessions said in the interview.

The defense official, who did not identify himself because he did not want to speak publicly for the secretary, further explained the rationale for seeking international agreement.

“The legitimacy is greater if there is some form of international mandate. There’s a sense that unilateral U.S. action would be perceived in the wrong way, especially in this part of the world. Does the U.S. want to go it alone in another Arab country? That figures into the calculus.”

The official said a United Nations Security Council resolution, like the one that authorized action in Libya, isn’t necessarily the only way to go about this. “Some kind of mandate from a regional organization could signify this is not just a unilateral effort on our part,” he said. This is important not only to the U.S., but to other nations in the region that oppose al-Assad’s regime, the source said.

The official also emphasized that international agreement is just one of the concerns. The other part of the equation is the Syrian military and dense population centers, which are big factors in any military intervention, said the source.

“The complexity of that cannot be overstated. This is a very hard problem set we’re dealing with.”