WASHINGTON — America’s two top defense leaders acknowledged Thursday that they had supported a CIA plan, opposed by the White House, to arm Syrian rebels .
The notion of arming the forces trying to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad was also backed by the State Department. But it ran counter to the view from the White House, partly out of an uncertainty about how deeply al-Qaida and other anti-Western Islamist elements had infiltrated the Syrian opposition.
In fact, McClatchy reporting has revealed that much of the fighting done by the Syrian resistance has been carried out by fighters with ties to the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaida, and by many who fought for al-Qaida in Iraq.
The admission came during an inquiry by the Senate Armed Services Committee into the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. It arose when soon-to-be-retiring Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were being questioned by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who seemed surprised by the answer.
McCain was wrapping up a contentious grilling of the two top Pentagon officials when he said: “And finally, I would ask, again, both of you what I asked you last March when 7,500 citizens of Syria had been killed. It’s now up to 60,000. How many more have to die before you recommend military action? And did you support the recommendation by . . . then Secretary of State (Hillary) Clinton and then head of CIA Gen. (David) Petraeus that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria? Do you support that?”
“We do,” Panetta replied.
“You did support that?” McCain asked a second time.
“We did,” Dempsey said.
The hearing, however, was called to delve into what happened on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, when four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, were killed during an attack on the U.S. consulate.
Republican critics have hammered the Obama administration over the deaths, blaming its lack of response and attacking its explanations afterward. The hearing provided them an opportunity to engage in another round of finger pointing. But Panetta came prepared.
“The United States military is not and should not be a global 9-1-1 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world,” he said.
The defense secretary, however, had an additional agenda for his likely final appearance before the committee — to implore lawmakers to work harder to avoid severe across-the-board budget cuts slated to take effect March 1, which he noted is already having serious impacts on military readiness.
But Benghazi was front and center.