Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey faced harsh Senate criticism on Thursday for failing to send rescue forces during the deadly Benghazi terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2012.
The two officials, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, also disclosed that President Barack Obama spoke one time that day and had no further direct engagement regarding the attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.
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Obama, in the midst of the presidential campaign, left the White House a day after the attack for a campaign appearance in Las Vegas.
Panetta and Dempsey, under fire for not sending military forces to defend the Benghazi outpost despite warnings it was vulnerable to attack, blamed poor intelligence for the failure.
"There was no specific intelligence or indications of an imminent attack on that—the U.S. facilities in Benghazi," Panetta said. "And frankly, without an adequate warning, there was not enough time, given the speed of the attack, for armed military assets to respond."
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), chastised Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the U.S. military’s policy of maintaining a "light footprint" of military forces in the region. He also said Dempsey’s prepared statement contained "one of the more bizarre statements that I have ever seen in my years in this committee."
"When you're talking about the Benghazi issue, you say, ‘We positioned our forces in a way that was informed by and consistent with available threat estimates,’" McCain said. "Then you go on to say, ‘Our military was appropriately responsive’ even though seven hours passed and two Americans died at the end of that. Then you go on and say, ‘We did what our posture and capabilities allowed.’"
McCain said a U.S. military base on Crete in the Mediterranean that is about one hours’ flying time to Benghazi.
Additionally, McCain noted the Aug. 15 State Department cable that said the diplomatic post in Benghazi could not withstand an attack yet no additional forces were positioned to respond, despite the upcoming anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks.
"So 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, and that's why four Americans died," McCain said. "We could have placed forces there. We could have had aircraft and other capabilities as short distance away as Souda Bay, Crete. So for you to testify before this committee that they were consistent with available threat estimates is simply false, that our military was appropriately responsive."
Dempsey said he stood by the testimony and noted, "We base our response on the combined effects of what we get from the intelligence communities."
Panetta and Dempsey said U.S. intelligence monitoring is focused less on Africa than on other global hot spots.
Dempsey said he saw the Aug. 15 cable and doubted recent testimony by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that she was unaware of the warning.
"Well, I don't know that she didn't know about the cable," Dempsey said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) stated that Clinton said she did not know about it and asked Dempsey, "Are you stunned that she didn't?"
"I would call myself surprised that she didn't."
The Benghazi hearing was the latest in a series of investigatory congressional meetings examining how terrorists attacked the diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA facility.
The Obama administration for over a week dismissed the attack as a response to an anti-Muslim video posted on the Internet.
The attack, however, from the earliest hours was known to be the work of an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group in Benghazi called Ansar al-Sharia.
U.S. intelligence officials said the administration politicized the incident to play down the al Qaeda links because a week earlier the president had said during his nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention that al Qaeda was on "the path to defeat."
Numerous intelligence reports indicated that al Qaeda is moving into Libya, Egypt, and other parts of North Africa. French troops recently launched military operations against al Qaeda strongholds in Mali.
Asked if the lack of response to Benghazi was an intelligence failure, Panetta faulted intelligence agencies for not taking more time to fully assess what happened during the nearly eight-hour attack.
Dempsey said an "intelligence gap" on Benghazi prevented mounting a rapid military response. He said it would have taken 20 hours to send forces from nearby bases.
In response to Panetta’s claim that nearly 300 U.S. facilities around the world were facing attacks, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.), said of reports on Benghazi: "Where else outside of Afghanistan, outside of Iraq, have we had weapons fired on a compound where we had a U.K. armored vehicle attack, where we had a bomb thrown over the compound wall, where we had a U.N. special envoy attack, where we had [rocket-propelled grenade] attacks and so forth and so on? Where outside of Afghanistan would that have happened?"
Dempsey said he bolstered security at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen after threat reports.
"Gen. Dempsey, I take that as a very weak response and reaction to this incident," Chambliss said. "You are the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. You knew what was happening in Benghazi. You failed to respond in a way that provided security to that particular United States mission complex when apparently you did respond in a positive way in Yemen, you say."
On Obama’s lack of engagement during the crisis, both Panetta and Dempsey said they spoke once to the president around 5:00 p.m. on Sept. 11 and were told by the president to do what was necessary to handle the incident.
No further communications were held between the president and his two senior Pentagon advisers, although Dempsey said other White House advisers were involved in monitoring the attack.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.), asked if any further communications were held with the president during the attack.
"Did [Obama] ever call you that night to say, ‘How are things going; what's going on; where's the consulate’?"
"No, but we were aware that as we were getting information on what was taking place there, particularly when we got information that the ambassador, his life had been lost, we were aware that that information went to the White House," Panetta said.
Graham, in sometimes harsh questioning, asked Dempsey why no AC-130 gunships were in the region that could have been used to help defend the Benghazi diplomatic compound.
"Was any DOD asset, aircraft or individual soldier ever sent, put in motion to help these people before the attack was over?" Graham asked.
"No, because the attack ended before they could get off the ground," Panetta said.
Graham also criticized Obama for not being more fully involved in dealing with the Benghazi attack.
Panetta said the president was concerned about American lives.
"With all due respect, I don't believe that's a credible statement if he never called and asked you, are we helping these people; what's happening to them?" Graham said.
Panetta said, speaking as a former White House chief of staff, that the president’s aide were handling the affair.
"So you think it's a typical response of the president of the United States to make one phone call, do what you can and never call you back again and ask you, how's it going, by the way, showing your frustration we don't have any assets in there to help these people for over seven hours?" Graham said.