WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that the speed of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last September kept U.S. armed forces from responding in time to save the four Americans who were killed.
Testifying for likely the last time on Capitol Hill before stepping down, Panetta defended the U.S. military's response on a chaotic Sept. 11 day as the Obama administration tried to assess the threat from protests in Tunisia, Egypt, the Libyan capital of Tripoli and other countries.
Panetta pushed back against Republican criticism that the Obama administration ignored warning signs about an attack that claimed the lives of American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. The Pentagon chief insisted there were no signs of an imminent attack or specific intelligence. Six months before the assault, the government was apprised of 281 threats to diplomatic missions, consulates and other facilities worldwide, he said.
Soon after the initial attack, Panetta said, he did dispatch various military teams to Benghazi, including Marines from Spain and a special operations force that was training in Central Europe.
He answered emerging questions about why the U.S. didn't send more firepower, such as gunships or fixed-wing fighter jets. He said those were not in the vicinity and would have required at least nine to 12 hours to deploy. Even if aircraft could have arrived quickly, the chaos would have prevented them from getting the accurate information they needed to hit the right targets, he said.