AP News Post via Army Times:
Before Panetta came into the hall, Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall told the more than 200 Marines in the room to take their weapons outside and leave them there. Afghan troops had already been told not to bring their guns in.
“Something has come to light,” Hall told the troops. It was a highly unusual order, and some in the audience said they had never seen that happen before.
Asked about the order, Hall said all he knew was that “I was told to get the weapons out.”
A U.S. defense official said the request was not a reaction to an immediate threat. Speaking on condition of anonymity to describe security procedures, the official said the base commander made the decision that no one would be allowed to bring in weapons.
The official said the decision was made out of respect for troops from other countries, such as the Afghans, who are never allowed to bring guns into an event. It was not a request from Panetta or his security team, the official said.
Then there was this form Bloomberg News:
A commander ordered all the soldiers with weapons to go and stack them outside the canvas-covered hangar before Panetta arrived to speak to about 200 troops from 11 countries and their Afghan partners. About 20 Afghans at the meeting didn’t have to because Panetta’s security detail had requested that they come unarmed in the first place, said Marine Master Sergeant Brenda Varnadore, a military spokeswoman.
Marine Major General Charles “Mark” Gurganus, the new NATO International Security and Assistance Force commander for the area that covers Helmand Province, said he ordered the American and other coalition soldiers to turn in their weapons to avoid signaling that their Afghan allies can’t be trusted.
“Somebody had said we were going to have the Afghans leave their weapons outside,” said Gurganus. “I wanted the Marines to look just like our Afghan partners.”
From CNN Blog:
Asked about the move, Hall told the New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller: “Somebody got itchy, that’s all I’ve got to say. Somebody got itchy; we just adjust.”
Gurganus later told reporters the decision had nothing to do with the weekend shooting, and said it was because the Afghan soldiers in attendance were unarmed and he did not want them treated differently than the Marines.
“This is not a big deal,” Gurganus said. But he then added that “you’ve got one of the most important people in the world in the room,” referring to Panetta. When it was pointed out that this had not been the custom, Gurganus – who is new to the post – replied, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
A senior defense official told CNN that Gurganus made the decision to have all coalition troops disarm on Tuesday, but “the order never got passed down the line to the individual units. So, unfortunately, it wasn’t until all the Marines were sitting down Wednesday that anyone realized what the general really wanted. It looked bad. But at that point they needed to comply with the order.”
Why is this a big deal?
Bill Roggio blogged this response:
Whatever the reason was for this decision, it was wrong. If Major General Gurganus was concerned about offending Afghan sensibilities, then he failed to consider how this would be perceived by his own Marines (and that would be poorly, I can assure you). If indeed someone was “itchy,” as Sergeant Major Hall initially said, about US troops being armed in the presence of their own Secretary of Defense, then Gurganus just told his Marines they cannot be trusted.
Can read some other reactions at Blackfive Military blog.