Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the military's reaction to last year's attack on diplomats in Benghazi, telling a Senate committee the armed forces “did all that we could do.”
“We employed every asset at our disposal that could have helped save the lives of our American colleagues,” Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
“Without adequate warning, there was not enough time, given the speed of the attack, for armed military assets to respond,” he said, citing time, distance and surprise. “There were no specific indications of an imminent attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi.”
The Sept. 11 attack at a temporary embassy facility in Libya resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, and has led to a political firestorm because of confusion about exactly what happened and why the attack was not prevented.
Panetta, in what could be his last appearance before Congress as defense secretary, said lessons from the attack are being addressed.
The U.S. needs a more clear idea of the host nation's abilities to provide security, and should provide security assistance where capabilities are lacking, he said.
Diplomatic security, in general, needs to be improved, Panetta said. A short-term improvement is to add 35 Marine detachments over the next three years, on top of the 152 existing detachments.
Improvement also is needed in intelligence-gathering and the ability of the military to respond to attacks, Panetta said.
The U.S. military “is not and should not be a global 911 service, capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world,” Panetta said.
Within 20 minutes of the assault on the Benghazi mission, the Defense Department redirected a surveillance drone that was on another mission over Libya to monitor events. It arrived on scene in about an hour, said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Forces in the region were “repositioned,” Dempsey said, with one anti-terrorism team deployed to Tripoli and a second prepared for deployment. Additionally, two special operations units - one based in the U.S. and the other in Europe - were sent to staging areas, Dempsey said. A C-17 also was provided for medical evacuation.
“We did what our posture and capabilities allowed,” he said.
“As events unfolded, we assessed the situation based on the available intelligence,” Dempsey said.