"Time, distance the lack of an adequate warning" were some of the factors that prevented the U.S. military from reaching the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, before four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, had been killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a Senate panel today.
Panetta testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that was investigating the U.S. military response the night of the attack. Panetta told the committee that "time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response" from U.S. military forces located in Europe and the United States. He also cited a U.S. intelligence "gap" that did not foresee the threat of an attack in Libya.
"They wouldn't have gotten there in time," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel. The Pentagon had previously disclosed that a Marine counterterrorism platoon based in Spain was the closest U.S. military force that was moved to Sicily to respond to the attacks that night, but arrived there long after the attack had concluded. A U.S. Special Operations team in Europe, and another one in the United States, were also moved, but long after the attack had ended.
Panetta warned against using the U.S. military as "a global 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world," saying the armed forces have "neither the resources nor the responsibility" to do so.
Both Panetta and Dempsey explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday that there was no particular stream of intelligence that indicated an attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound was imminent. Both said there was greater concern about American diplomatic facilities in Sudan, Yemen and Pakistan that day than there was anywhere in Libya.
"I think with regards to those specific individuals that were involved in this attack there was a gap," said Panetta. "We didn't have the intelligence that would have given us a heads-up that this kind of thing was going to happen. And that is something that we do need to pay attention to."
Panetta said the U.S. military's response was determined by the intelligence flow of what was taking place on the ground in Benghazi in the seven hours between the initial attack on the U. S. consulate and the later attack on a CIA annex located two miles away.
"The problem that happens here - and this is something that does need to change - is whether or not we have the best intelligence assets, the best intelligence resources in the areas where we need good information," Panetta told senators.
"We've got a lot of resources that are there…but if you have an area where you don't have resources there, if you don't have good intelligence, then it's going to create a gap" he said.
Panetta later attributed that gap to a prioritizing of endeavors in other countries - including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen - over Libya and to a lack of host country capabilities.
Over the course of the four-hour hearing, Panetta warned the automatic budget cuts prescribed in the sequestration legislation would further undermine the Department of Defense's ability to fulfill its responsibility to protect American citizens.
"This will badly damage our national defense and compromise our ability to respond to crises in a dangerous world," Panetta said.