Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today he regrets the high cost of his weekend travels to California, and is looking for ways to save money on flights that have totaled about $860,000 since he came to the Pentagon last July.
Throughout his Washington career, Panetta has routinely returned to his walnut farm in Monterey, Calif. on weekends. He did so as a congressman, as a cabinet member and as chief of staff in the Clinton White House.
However, in the post-9/11 world the Defense Secretary is obliged to be reachable to take secure communications whenever he travels, which means he can't take commercial flights as he did in the past.
Now, Panetta often takes a small military jet. The 10-hour round-trip flights between Washington and California are estimated to cost $32,000 each Panetta is only required to pay the cost of a commercial ticket for himself, about $630 a flight.
At a Pentagon briefing with reporters today, Panetta said that he regrets the trips to California add costs to taxpayers. He said he is looking for savings. He also defended the trips, saying his wife and family are in California and that "it's healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight."
"I regret that it does - you know, that it does add costs that the taxpayer has to pick up," Panetta said today. "A taxpayer would have to pick up those costs with any secretary of state or secretary of defense. But having said that, I am trying to look at what are - the alternatives here that I can look at that might possibly be able to save funds and, at the same time, be able to fulfill my responsibilities, not only to my job, but to my family."
The Pentagon says Panetta has made 27 round-trip flights since becoming Secretary of Defense in July. The cost of operating the flights is usually $3,200 an hour.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, came to Panetta's defense at today's briefing.
"Let me help the boss here, because if I couldn't get a hold of him, we'd have a really different relationship," said Dempsey. He added that Panetta "doesn't get much rest in California, based on the number of times I know that I'm in contact with him."
He also pointed out that Panetta often tacks on visits to military bases to the weekend trips home, "so it's not an out and back." He added, "This is not about him just using that airplane to get himself back and forth to the West Coast every weekend."