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.
“The bases that we have in southern Europe, in the Mediterranean area are — generally speaking have aircraft,” Dempsey said. “The first point I made is that it wasn’t the right tool for the particular threat we faced. Secondly, the aircraft we have in Europe, generally are there in support of NATO and on a different alert posture. That was not among the forces — the aircraft were not among the forces that we had at heightened alert.”
McCain called the written statement submitted by Dempsey “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.’ 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.
The base at Souda Bay, Crete, is an hour and a half away by plane, the senator noted.
Dempsey said intelligence received about the instability in Benghazi and assessment that the consulate could not withstand an attack “bothered me a great deal, but we never received a request” to help.
“We never received a request for support from the State Department, which would have allowed us to put forces on the ground,” the general said, adding, “I’m not blaming the State Department. I’m sure they had their own assessment. … I was also concerned at that time with Sanaa in Yemen, Khartoum, Islamabad, Peshawar, Kabul, Baghdad. We had some pretty significant intel threat streams against those places as well.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) asked Panetta if he’d ever discussed the cable from Ambassador Chris Stevens about the consulate’s insecurity with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“As I mentioned in my testimony, [National Counterterrorism Center] had identified almost 281 facilities that were under a threat of one kind or another. And to deal with that, I mean, that’s not our responsibility,” the Defense chief said. “…The cable was actually to the State Department. Not to me.”
While Dempsey and Panetta included the cable in their broader meetings about the global terrorism threat, both told the committee they never brought it to Obama’s attention.
“What conversation did you have with the president? What did he ask you to do as a result of this attack? And throughout the night what communications were you having with him?” Ayotte asked.
“At the time we had — we were concerned about Cairo and demonstrations in Cairo, and then we had just picked up the information that something was happening, there was an apparent attack going on in Benghazi,” Panetta said. “And I informed the president of that fact. And he at that point directed both myself and General Dempsey to do everything we needed to do to try to protect lives there.”
That didn’t include asking the military leaders any questions about deploying assets in a rescue effort.
“He relied on both myself as secretary and on General Dempsey’s capabilities. He knows generally what we’ve deployed into the region. We’ve presented that to him in other briefings. So he knew generally what was deployed out there. But as to specifics about time, et cetera, et cetera, no, he just left that up to us,” Panetta said.
There was no follow-up communication from the White House that night.
“Are you surprised that the president of the United States never called you, Secretary Panetta, and say, ‘How’s it going?’” Graham asked. “Did you ever call him and say, ‘Mr. President, it looks like we don’t have anything to get there any time soon’?”
“The event was over before we could move any assets,” Panetta protested. “…Look, there is no question in my mind the president of the United States was concerned about American lives.”
“Well, 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 these people?’” said Graham.