WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that the speed of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, kept U.S. armed forces from responding in time to save the four Americans who were killed as the Pentagon chief defended the military's response on a chaotic Sept. 11 day.
Testifying for likely the last time on Capitol Hill before stepping down, Panetta said the Obama administration was trying to assess the threat from protests in Tunisia, Egypt, the Libyan capital of Tripoli and other countries while trying to move quickly to respond to two separate assaults six hours apart in Benghazi.
The positioning of military teams far from the U.S. installation made it difficult to respond swiftly, he said. The assault claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
"The United States 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 told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey echoed the argument that the military did what its location allowed, which angered Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who accused the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman of peddling falsehoods.
"For you to testify that our posture did not allow a rapid response, did not take into account threats to our consulate ... is simply false," McCain told Dempsey. McCain contended that the military's capability allowed armed forces to intervene in short order.
Dempsey said he stood by his testimony, "your dispute of it notwithstanding." The general said the military was concerned with multiple threats worldwide and, based on time and positioning of forces, "we wouldn't have gotten there in time."
Between midnight and 2 a.m. on the night of the attack, Panetta issued orders, telling two Marine anti-terrorism teams based in Rota, Spain, to prepare to deploy to Libya, and he ordered a team of special operations forces in Central Europe and another team of special operations forces in the U.S. to prepare to deploy to a staging base in Europe.
The first of those U.S. military units did not actually arrive in the region until well after the attack was over and Americans had been flown out of the country. Just before 8 p.m., the special operations team landed at Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily. An hour later, the Marine team landed in Tripoli. Defense officials have repeatedly said that even if the military had been able to get units there a bit faster, there was no way they could have gotten there in time to make any difference in the deaths of the four Americans.
"This was, pure and simple, a problem of distance and time," Panetta said.
Committee Republicans used the hearing to highlight their months of repeated criticism of President Barack Obama and the administration, claiming officials ignored warnings and even suggesting that the commander in chief was disengaged from what was happening during the hours of the two attacks.
Panetta said he and Dempsey were meeting with Obama when they learned for the Libya assault. He said the president told them to deploy forces as quickly as possible.
In one testy exchange, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., questioned whether Panetta spoke again to Obama after that first meeting. The Pentagon chief said no but that the White House was in touch with military officials and aware of what was happening.
"During the eight-hour period, did he show any curiosity?" Graham asked.
Panetta said there was no question the president was concerned about American lives. Exasperated with Graham's interruptions, Panetta said forcefully, "The president is well-informed about what is going on; make no mistake about it."