CAPITOL HILL — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has strongly defended the Pentagon’s response to last September's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the deaths of four Americans. In what is likely his last appearance before a Senate committee, the outgoing Pentagon chief appealed to Congress to take action to prevent automatic spending cuts to military spending, set to happen March 1.
Nearly all of the members of the Senate Armed Services committee thanked outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta for his years of dedicated service to the country. But a number of Republican members had tough questions for him, and especially for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, on why the Pentagon was not able to protect Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the three other Americans killed in Benghazi.
Asked why U.S. military assets were not deployed to help those Americans under attack in their compound in Libya, Panetta said there were no appropriate U.S. aircraft nearby, so it would have taken nine to 12 hours for an armed aircraft to get there. Panetta cited an internal Defense Department review of the incident, saying the Pentagon did what it could.
“The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time, given the speed of the attacks, for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference," said Panetta.
Panetta and Dempsey said they would have had armed troops deployed to the Benghazi facility if they had been requested, and cited a gap in intelligence in Libya, and in northern Africa in general. Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss was not satisfied.
“Your responses, General Dempsey, are very inadequate, and in my opinion, the same kind of inadequacy for the security that you provided at that consulate," said Chambliss.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham grilled both Panetta and Dempsey on how many times they spoke to President Barack Obama on the night of the Benghazi attack. They both said they spoke to the president once. Graham expressed surprise that the president was not more involved, and that he had not called back to find out how things were going in Libya.
During the hearing, a question from Republican Senator John McCain prompted Dempsey and Panetta to reveal that they both support sending U.S. arms to the opposition in Syria, although President Obama has refused to take that action. McCain did not press the matter, however.
Panetta called on members of Congress to agree on a national budget to prevent severe automatic spending cuts - the measure known as the sequester - from happening on March 1.
“I have got to use this opportunity to express again my greatest concern as secretary, and frankly one of the greatest security risks we are now facing as a nation, that this budget uncertainty could prompt the most significant military readiness crisis in more than a decade," he said.
Panetta called for a balanced solution to avoid the automatic spending cuts, saying the sequester was designed to be so "crazy" that it would never actually happen.