Panetta, Dempsey: Call with Obama Included No Direction on Benghazi

"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.