Defense secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disclosed on Thursday they supported a CIA plan to arm Syrian rebels that was rejected by President Barack Obama.
Panetta and Dempsey were asked by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) when they would recommend military action against the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Both leaders said they supported an earlier recommendation made by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA director David Petraeus to provide weapons to Syrian rebels battling the Assad regime.
“We did,” Dempsey stated.
Later during the hearing on the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack, Panetta was asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) about the plan to arm Syrian rebels.
Panetta stated: “That was our position. I do want to say that obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president's decision to make it nonlethal.”
The Obama administration rejected the covert action plan as part of its so-called “lead-from-behind” strategy of avoiding overseas military or paramilitary operations.
The hearing raises new questions about the CIA operation in Benghazi at the time of the terrorist attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.
United States officials said the CIA was working on a program to try to control large numbers of military weapons from reaching terrorist groups, including shoulder-fired missiles.
However, suspicions among some U.S. officials focus on covert CIA support to provide gathered arms in Benghazi and turn them over to the Libyan government. The interim Libyan government strongly supports the Syrian opposition forces.
Clinton was asked Jan. 23 during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whether she was aware of a CIA program to ship arms to Turkey and other states in the region.
Asked if “the U.S. [is] involved with any procuring of weapons, transfer of weapons, buying, selling, anyhow transferring weapons to Turkey out of Libya?” Clinton responded: “To Turkey?”
“I will have to take that question for the record,” she said. “That’s — I — nobody’s ever raised that with me.”
News reports at the time indicated ships carrying arms had left Libya for Turkey.
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) asked if the Benghazi CIA annex attacked on Sept. 11, 2012, was “involved with procuring, buying, selling, obtaining weapons, and were any of these weapons being transferred to other countries, any countries, Turkey included?”
Clinton told Paul to ask the agency that ran the annex and that she would “see what information is available.”
Details of the CIA mission in Libya remain couched in secrecy.
The New York Times reported Sunday that the CIA drew up plans to launch a covert program to vet, train, and arm Syrian rebels.
The plan was aimed at attempting to fashion an opposition force among the Syrian rebels that was pro-western.
Currently, Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and a hardline Islamist group called the Al Nusrah Front, dominate the rebel forces.
The Obama administration recently identified the Al Nusrah Front as a vehicle being used by Islamist terrorists.