By Jeremy Herb
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on Thursday defended the Pentagon’s response to the attack in Benghazi, Libya, as Republicans criticized them for not having military personnel in place.
Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee said there was “not enough time” to get military assets to Benghazi because there were no specific indications of an imminent attack on the U.S. facility there.
“Without adequate warning, there was not enough time, given the speed of the attack, for armed military assets to respond,” Panetta told the panel.
“This was, pure and simple, a problem of distance and time,” Panetta said, adding that it would have taken nine to 12 hours to respond to the attack, which was over about seven hours after it began.
The testimony from Panetta and Dempsey was challenged by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other Republicans, who questioned why there weren’t boots on the ground before the attack and forces deployed shortly after it occurred.
McCain said it was “bizarre” to argue the military was responsive enough and asked why the Pentagon wasn’t already prepared to respond in Benghazi, given the cables that had warned that facility was vulnerable to a sustained attack.
“For you to testify that our posture did not allow a rapid response — our posture was not there because we didn’t take into account the threats to that consulate,” McCain said. “And that’s why four Americans died.”
Panetta said the fog of war can make it difficult for the military to respond to incidents like Benghazi.
“Once an attack takes place, the biggest problem we had is getting accurate information about exactly what was taking place in order to then develop what response you need to do,” Panetta said.
“You can’t just willy-nilly send F-16s there and blow the hell out of the place without knowing what’s taking place.”
But McCain pressed Dempsey over why forces weren’t ready to respond after U.S. Africa Commander Gen. Carter Ham told Dempsey about the security concerns of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was among the four Americans killed in the attack.
McCain asked Dempsey if he knew about the cable from Stevens. “I had through General Ham, but we never received a request for support from the State Department, which would have allowed us to put forces on the ground,” Dempsey said.
“So it's the State Department's fault?” McCain responded.
“I'm not blaming the State Department,” Dempsey said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who is also the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, also criticized Dempsey, calling his testimony “inadequate.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Dempsey how it was possible that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a “clear eyed” assessment of the threats at Benghazi when she hadn’t seen the cable from Stevens.
“Are you stunned?” Graham asked.
“I would call myself surprised that she didn’t,” Dempsey said.
Graham and other Republicans questioned why President Obama only talked to Panetta and Dempsey once the night of the attack. Panetta defended the president, saying that as a former White House chief of staff that was the normal course of action.
The criticism Thursday of Dempsey, the top U.S. military general, from Republicans was a rare rebuke of military officials by lawmakers.
Republicans have pointed to the Benghazi assault, in which four Americans were killed, to criticize the Obama administration's foreign policy during 2012 presidential election, accusing the White House of trying to downplay what occurred.
Much of the criticism was directed at Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who had said in the days after the attack that it was spontaneous and sparked by protests, which later turned out to be false.
The committee’s top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), accused the Obama administration of covering up the scope of the Benghazi attack, citing Rice’s talking points on the Sunday shows the weekend following the attack.
Inhofe said that he wanted to focus more on the Benghazi talking points and White House response to the attack, and said in his prepared remarks that Panetta and Dempsey were “the wrong witnesses.”
“The big problem here is the cover-up, and nobody talks about it,” Inhofe said.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who called the hearing, said it was unfortunate that the focus has been on Rice’s statements.
“Unfortunately, to date, much of the discourse about the events surrounding the deadly attack against our facilities and people in Benghazi have focused on the preparation and dissemination of unclassified talking points that were prepared — at the request of Congress — by our nation’s intelligence professionals, and approved by their most senior leadership,” Levin said in his opening statement.
The hearing is occurring after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was a vocal opponent of Rice, threatened last week to block the confirmation of Panetta’s successor, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), unless Panetta testified about what happened in Benghazi.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified last month before she left her post.
Some Republicans also targeted their criticism at the Pentagon, suggesting that there should have been more of an effort from the military to intervene.
The Defense Department released a timeline in November of its response to the attack, which included mobilizing Marine “FAST” teams and special operations units to prepare to deploy to Benghazi.
But Panetta, who is testifying at what might be his last congressional hearing, said that the security team that deployed to Benghazi was the best possible way for the United States to respond.
“The United States military is not and should not be a global 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world,” Panetta said.
The secretary said that in addition to Benghazi, there were concerns about potential attacks in many other locations on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Panetta said there were lessons to be learned from the incident, including better assessing of the ability for host governments to provide security, enhancing diplomatic security with a greater military presence and, improving intelligence and response capability.
He said that changes have already been made that resulted in early decisions to deploy additional security or withdraw State Department diplomatic staff in advance of a crisis.
Panetta also defended the Pentagon’s response to Congress in the days after the attack, pointing out that he and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were the among the first government officials to brief Congress.
Levin said that he was interested in discussing potential changes in the U.S. force posture overseas, particularly with the additional incidents in Mali and Algeria since the Benghazi attack occurred.
This story was last updated at 12:54 p.m.