LONDON — As international military operations continued in Algeria and Mali, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged NATO Friday to be more innovative and flexible so it can keep "relentless pressure" on al-Qaida and be able to respond to a broad range of security threats in the future.
Panetta was speaking as officials were still trying to sort out details in the kidnapping and possible rescue effort of hostages, including Americans, in Algeria. He said NATO nations must work together to help other countries beef up their security and ensure that terrorists can't establish safe havens in places like North Africa or anywhere in the world.
Just after he spoke, Panetta went to No. 10 Downing St. where he met for 45 minutes with British Prime Minister David Cameron and exchanged updates on the Algeria operation, where Algerian forces tried to rescue hostages held by Islamic militants at a natural gas facility.
Panetta began his speech at King's College with a threat of his own – warning terrorists that they will find no refuge in Algeria, North Africa or anywhere. But he provided no details on the murky rescue operations that officials say have continued throughout the day.
Instead he went on to speak more broadly about the need for NATO to build deeper relationships with alliances of African nations and increase its work with Asian countries in order to better face down future threats.
He said NATO is the one true military alliance that can act decisively to advance global peace and security, but to fulfill that goal it must be strong and bold enough to change.
The allies, he said, can't focus on one mission – such as stability operations in Afghanistan. Instead, they must be creative and share capabilities and not let budget constraints prevent them from facing security challenges that come up.
Panetta's appearance at King's College is likely his last major speech as defense secretary, as he is expected to step down next month. President Barack Obama has nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to be the next Pentagon chief.
Panetta's NATO swan-song was in stark contrast to the more grim warnings delivered by his predecessor, Robert Gates, in June 2011. Coming during Gate's final overseas trip, the speech reflected the growing frustration of U.S. officials who were tired of America carrying the brunt of the military responsibilities for the financially strapped European countries.
NATO faces a "dim if not dismal future," Gates said, because of European penny-pinching and distaste for front-line combat.
Panetta's message Friday was more genial, calling NATO a model for how nations can come together to advance peace and security. He called NATO the bedrock of America's global network of alliances but said it is at an important turning point. As the war in Afghanistan winds down, the next chapter for NATO begins, he said.
He challenged the alliance to join America in its new emphasis on the Pacific region and to increase dialogue with China, Japan and South Korea.
Saying Europe's economic and security future is increasingly tied to Asia, Panetta said, "the bottom line is that Europe should not fear our rebalance to Asia, Europe should join it."
Panetta also pointed to cybersecurity threats as an escalating problem for the alliance. And he urged NATO to hold a session in the coming year to talk about how it can beef up its ability to block and deal with cyberattacks. (AP)