Panetta on Benghazi: 'Not enough time' for Pentagon to respond to attack

Panetta on Benghazi: 'Not enough time' for Pentagon to respond to attack

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 McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump fights for battleground Arizona Flake cuts ad for Biden: 'Character' matters Obama book excerpt: 'Hard to deny my overconfidence' during early health care discussions MORE (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.”


Dempsey said there was no force stationed in Libya because the military never received a request to provide one. He said that there were threats on Sept. 11 in numerous countries that were potentially as serious as Benghazi.

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 ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying world GOP lobbyist tapped for White House legislative affairs The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks MORE (R-Ga.), who is also the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, also criticized Dempsey, calling his testimony “inadequate.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLate donor surges push election spending projections to new heights Pence seeks to lift GOP in battle for Senate Wall Street backed Biden campaign with million in 2020 cycle: report MORE (R-S.C.) asked Dempsey how it was possible that Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Trump fights for battleground Arizona Biden leads Trump by 12 in new national poll MORE 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 InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Dems want hearing on DOD role on coronavirus vaccine | US and India sign data-sharing pact | American citizen kidnapped in Niger Senate Democrats want hearing on Pentagon vaccine effort Governors urge negotiators to include top priorities in final defense policy bill MORE (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 LevinCarl Milton LevinMichigan to pay 0M to victims of Flint water crisis Unintended consequences of killing the filibuster Inspector general independence must be a bipartisan priority in 2020 MORE (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 HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelArmy taps University of Wisconsin to lead research into hybrid vehicles, aircraft While our foes deploy hypersonic weapons, Washington debates about funding Hillicon Valley: Democrats request counterintelligence briefing | New pressure for election funding | Republicans urge retaliation against Chinese hackers MORE (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.