WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon will begin taking steps to freeze civilian hiring, delay some contract awards and curtail some maintenance to prepare for drastic budget cuts if Congress can't reach an agreement on a final spending plan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.

Speaking to reporters, Panetta said that department officials must also develop detailed plans to implement unpaid furloughs for civilian personnel. The furloughs would kick in if the automatic cuts are triggered.

But Panetta said he has asked defense leaders to ensure that any initial moves they make now should be reversible if at all possible, and they must minimize harmful effects on military readiness.

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