“General Dempsey, I was just going over your written statement, and I have to admit, it's one of the more bizarre statements that I have ever seen in my years in this committee,” argued Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), one of several to shake their heads at the defense leaders on Thursday.
Panetta and Dempsey were pressed under tough questioning, almost entirely from the Republican committee members, on nearly every aspect of the incident, from intelligence reports of mounting threats in the region before the attack to the conversations inside the White House as it unfolded.
Dempsey faced perhaps the toughest public criticism of his career over claims that the U.S. military was amply positioned in the Middle East to respond to any crisis, yet proved unable to respond in time in Benghazi.
McCain criticized the Pentagon for not placing more military assets in Libya or the region after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Other Republicans asked why the Pentagon did not deploy close-attack aircraft like AC-130s or fighter planes like F-16s to quell the assault, and why rapid response teams of U.S. troops never made it to Benghazi at all that day.
But Dempsey and Panetta stuck with the same conclusions they have proffered for months -- that the Benghazi attack happened too fast and the facts were too confusing to risk or warrant a military response.
Republicans like McCain have criticized President Obama for not leaving military forces in Libya or building up forces before the Benghazi attack in response to mounting threats against U.S. entities at the time. Under questioning, Dempsey said that the Pentagon’s best option indeed would have been to have troops on the ground before the attack occurred. But, he said, the Pentagon did not have a larger military presence on the ground because the State Department did not request it.
“General Dempsey, I take that as a very weak response and reaction to this incident,” argued Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). “You are the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. You knew what was happening in Benghazi. You failed to respond in a way that provided security to that particular United States mission complex.”
But Dempsey countered, claiming that Africa Command’s Gen. Carter Ham was told not to send help before September 11.
“General Ham actually called the embassy to see if they wanted to extend the special security team there and was said -- and was told no,” the chairman said. That account was contained in Ham’s weekly reports to Dempsey, the chairman said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the committee's ranking member, noted that before the incident Ham had requested more assets from the Pentagon for counterterrorism. “Senator, my view was, whatever General Ham asked, we did more than try to respond,” Panetta said.
“Yeah, I know you did and we did too,” replied Inhofe. “I've talked to him about this, and we know that the assets just weren't available.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) later pressed Dempsey to admit that he knew Amb. Chris Stevens had previously cabled the State Department, warning that Benghazi compound could not withstand a coordinated attack. Ayotte tried to press Dempsey on why the general did not discuss the Stevens cable directly with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But Panetta stepped in to note that the compound was one of 281 U.S. facilities around the world the National Counterterrorism Center had identified as vulnerable to a coordinated attack.
Some senators took the opportunity to quiz Panetta, the former CIA director, about the initial intelligence assessments that the violence stemmed from a protest and not a coordinated attack.
“I think some of the initial assessments here were not on the money,” Panetta said.
“This one I actually think of more as an intelligence gap,” Dempsey said, rather than a total “failure.”
In questioning about the timeline of events, throughout the hearing Republicans seemed unsure or unconvinced the Pentagon actually had its troops en route to Libya at all. Several senators pressed Panetta and Dempsey to explain when the Pentagon called off its response efforts during the 8-hour attack.
The Pentagon leaders, however, would not reveal the extent to which Marine FAST teams were en route to Libya, or even left the ground. ”They were moving to get there,” Panetta insisted, repeatedly.
Ayotte said reports to Congress only show the troops in a “prepare to deploy” state. “It doesn’t seem to me we were moving with a sense of urgency, given that we have an ambassador missing,” she argued. Panetta and Dempsey said the teams at no point were told to wait or stand down keeping them from moving toward Libya.
“There is nothing that held them up,” Dempsey said.
“My question is, did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) pressed.
“No, because the attack ended,” Panetta said.
“Thank you. Thank you,” Graham interrupted, trying to silence the secretary.
“-- before they could get off the ground,” Panetta finished.
“At some point there had to have been a decision made not to deploy them,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), asked later. Panetta said after the initial attack ended within roughly an hour, the Pentagon thought the episode was over.
“We had no intelligence that a second attack would take place at the annex two miles away,” he said. U.S. teams were still being sent to Tripoli. But by they time they reached the capital the attack in Benghazi was over, he said. Had troops been on higher alert or closer-positioned, Dempsey added, they could have reached the compound sooner.
“Looking back,” Lee continued, “given that it was an important anniversary of 9/11, was there good reason to have put them at a higher state of alert than they were?”
“Well, looking back is a lot clearer than looking forward,” Dempsey said.
Few Democrats asked about Benghazi, limiting many of their questions to the sequester fight. But Republicans pressed why aircraft were not available to respond sooner.
“I don't even know exactly where they were,” Panetta said, “but I know there was -- there were no AC-130s in -- anywhere near North Africa that night.” Dempsey said that F-16s would not have been an appropriate response.
“If we’d had been able to get there with anything, we’d have gone in there,” Dempsey insisted.
“There's a base at Souda Bay, Crete, general,” McCain said. “There's a base there. It's about an hour-and-a-half flight,” questioning Panetta’s claim that military aircraft with adequate support would have required 9 to 12 hours to reach Benghazi that day.
McCain and Graham both pressed the defense leaders to lay blame on someone -- anyone -- in the adminstration.
“So it's the State Department's fault,” McCain said, in a pointed exchange.
“I'm not blaming the State Department. I'm sure they had their own assessment,” Dempsey replied.
“Who would you blame?”
“Who IS responsible, then?” McCain prodded, without letting Dempsey respond.
Undeterred, freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a new member to the committee with no military experience, later said, “I recognize that in any military conflict, one inevitably faces the proverbial fog of war. But what I'd like to ask you to do is use the 20/20 hindsight we have now.”
“Senator,” Panetta replied, “as you said, it's tough to respond to a hypothetical.”
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