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Panetta disarms U.S. Marines during visit to Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta outlines the main areas of proposed spending cuts during a news conference at the Pentagon, Thursday, Jan., 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta landed in Afghanistan earlier today, the first high-profile U.S. official to visit since an American staff sergeant allegedly went on a killing spree in villages near his base in the southern province of Kandahar.  Before speaking to a crowd of some 200 Marines, Afghan security officers and troops from other coalition nations stationed in the desert of Helmand Province, the New York Times reports that the order came down the chain of command to completely disarm all military personnel prior to Panetta's arrival:

In a sign of the nervousness surrounding Mr. Panetta’s trip, the Marines and other troops who were waiting in a tent for the defense secretary to speak were abruptly asked by their commander to get up, place their weapons — M-16 and M-4 automatic rifles and 9-mm pistols — outside the tent and then return unarmed. The commander, Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall, told reporters he was acting on orders from superiors.

“All I know is, I was told to get the weapons out,” he said. Asked why, he replied, “Somebody got itchy, that’s all I’ve got to say. Somebody got itchy; we just adjust.”

Normally, American forces in Afghanistan keep their weapons with them when the defense secretary visits and speaks to them. The Afghans in the tent waiting for Mr. Panetta were not armed to begin with, as is typical.

Later, American officials said that the top commander in Helmand, Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, had decided on Tuesday that no one would be armed while Mr. Panetta spoke to them, but the word did not reach those in charge in the tent until shortly before Mr. Panetta was due to arrive.

General Gurganus told reporters later that he wanted a consistent policy for everyone in the tent. “You’ve got one of the most important people in the world in the room,” he said. He insisted that his decision had nothing to do with the shooting on Sunday. “This is not a big deal,” he said.

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