The nation’s defense leaders painted a picture today of a disjointed, less-than-rapid response to the Benghazi attacks framed by questions of how much responsibility the Pentagon had to come to the Americans’ rescue and how much communication the White House had with the Defense Department.
And that, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, included one phone call from President Obama.
“I talked to him on September 11th with regard to the fact that we were aware this attack was taking place,” Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning during a hearing to examine the Benghazi attack in which four Americans were killed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threatened to block any nominee to fill the retiring Panetta’s place until he received Pentagon testimony on the deadly assault.
Democrats on the panel, in line with Panetta’s opening statement, consistently turned the topic away from Benghazi to sequestration cuts — essentially blaming Republicans for ushering in an era of unpreparedness. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marin Dempsey chose not to give a lengthy opening statement, but simply concurred with Panetta’s remarks.
Graham, a vocal advocate against sequestration cuts, noted “this is a hearing about Benghazi.”
“We’ve talked about sequestration, which is important. And I just want to make sure that we understand what happened on September the 11th regarding Benghazi,” he said.
Panetta and Dempsey, who were in the same room for that one call from Obama, said the conversation lasted about 30 minutes. They didn’t speak again until the hours-long attack was well over.
Graham queried the pair about aircraft available in the area during the attack. “You said the F-16 was not a good platform to defend the consulate. What would have been the appropriate platform?” the senator asked.
“The appropriate platform, Senator, would have been to have boots on the ground ahead of the event. After the event is in conduct, it would be very difficult,” Dempsey responded.
“Is there a saying in the military, when you go into harm’s way, ‘We’ve got your back’?” asked Graham, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, to which Dempsey responded there is.
“Don’t you think that saying has been undermined here? That — how can people in — in the military, the foreign service believe we’ve got their back when after over — did you know how long the attack was gonna last, Secretary Panetta?”
“No idea,” Panetta said.
“Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?” Graham continued.
“No, because the attack ended before they could get off the ground,” said Panetta.
But in his opening statement, Panetta both downplayed the responsibility of the Defense Department to protect diplomatic outposts and touted the ability of the armed services to get on a plane in response within two hours.
“The United States military, as I’ve said, is not and, frankly, should not be a 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world. The U.S. military has neither the resources nor the responsibility to have a fire house next to every U.S. facility in the world,” Panetta said.
“We have some key bases, particularly in this region. We have some key platforms from which we can deploy. And we have forces on alert, and we’re prepared to move,” he continued. “But our ability to identify threats, to adjust posture, to prevent plots, and respond to attacks to our personnel at home and overseas depends on actionable intelligence — and it always will.”
The Defense secretary said the Pentagon is working with the State Department to both link appropriate intelligence and adjust response capability accordingly.
“We’ve deployed key response forces abroad. We have reduced their response time. But let me again say to you that even those — those forces that are on a tight alert time of N-plus-two — notice plus two hours — to be able to on a plane,” he said. “Once those forces are put on airlift, it still requires many hours in that part of the world to fly distances, long distances in order to be able to respond.”
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Angus King (I-Maine) asked why forces at the Crete base, across the Mediterranean from Benghazi, weren’t employed to help the Americans at the consular mission.