WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the top U.S. military officer rallied behind Chuck Hagel yesterday after President Barack Obama's choice for Pentagon chief endured a rocky hearing.

Republicans hammered Hagel when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, with some of the fiercest questioning coming from lawmakers who had served alongside him during his two terms as a Republican senator from Nebraska.

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"It's pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel," Panetta told the NBC program "Meet the Press." "What disappointed me is that . . . they talked a lot about past quotes; but what about what a secretary of defense is confronting today?"

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered positive words about Hagel, who if confirmed would become Dempsey's boss. "In [our] contacts . . . I found him to be very thoughtful and very well prepared and very interested. And so if he's confirmed, I'm sure that we'll establish a very close working relationship," he told CNN's "State of the Union" in a joint appearance with Panetta. -- Reuters