WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says President Obama was out of touch completely the night four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in Benghazi, Libya.
In his testimony to Congress today, Panetta said that the operational details of the response, the decisions on what resources were available to help, and other decisions were left "up to us."
Panetta, answering questions from Congress about the attack on the U.S., said except for a scheduled meeting with the president the day of the attack, Obama failed to communicate in any way with him that day.
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Panetta said he simply didn't hear from anyone at the White House.
He also said logistics and fear of more attacks prevented a quicker, more aggressive U.S. response to the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2012.
But for days, even weeks, the Obama administration attributed the violence and deaths to a mob that was upset over a little-known online video purporting to be about Mohammad, a move that still has not been explained.
Panetta said no air support was dispatched when the terror attack over logistics.
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"The reason simply is armed UAVs, AC-130 gunships, or fixed-wing fighters with the associated tanking, armaments, targeting and support capabilities were not in the vicinity of Libya and because of the distance, would have taken at least 9-12 hours to deploy. This was, pure and simple, a problem of distance and time," he said.
"The quickest response option available was a Tripoli-based security team. Within hours, the six-person team, including two U.S. military personnel, chartered [a] private airplane to Benghazi. Within 15 minutes of arriving at the annex facility, they came under attack by mortar and rocket propelled grenades," he said.
He said the fact that it was an organized terror attack, notably on the anniversary of the 2001 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York that killed thousands, was obvious.
"I am convinced that this is a terrorist attack…a coordinated mob does not use mortars and RPGs," he said.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., raised the issue of the false statements from the administration about a mob incited by an online movie project, but got no clear explanation.
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Panetta said the logistics created complications.
"On that day, the Department of Defense was prepared with a number of contingencies," he said, citing the "281 registered threats" against various American sites globally.
"There was not enough time for military assets to respond," he said, saying he did "everything we could to save American lives."
"It is important to remember that in addition to responding to the situation in Benghazi, we were also concerned about potential threats to U.S. personnel in Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Sana'a and elsewhere that could potentially require a military response," he said.
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And he said changes already have been implemented to prevent future losses.
"The changes we have made have already resulted in additional security," he said.
"A special operations force, which was training in central Europe, was ordered to redeploy to an intermediate deployment staging base in southern Europe," he said.
The questions from members of Congress to Panetta, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey who joined him, followed by about two weeks the grilling senators and representatives handed Hillary Clinton, the ex-Secretary of State.
Dempsey said that an unarmed drone was on the scene "within minutes."
"We positioned our forces in a way that was informed by and consistent with available threat estimates," he said. "In fact, U.S. facilities in many countries throughout the Africa Command and Central Command areas were operating under heightened force protection levels."
He continued, "Our military was appropriately responsible. We acted quickly once notified of the attacks on the Temporary Mission facility. As a result of our posture and our ongoing operations, we were able to divert an unarmed, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft to Benghazi within minutes."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Dempsey's explanations were lacking.
"It is one of the more bizarre statements that I have seen in this committee," he said. "Our posture was there because we did not take into account the threats against the consulate."
Dempsey did not answer McCain's question, "Who is responsible then?"
Media accounts describe Clinton's appearance before Senate and house panels as "emotional and fiery."
But Clinton was not asked, and did not address, dozens of key issues about the tragedy, including:
- What did you know, and when did you know about the standoff occurring in Benghazi?
- Why did President Obama declare publicly in initial comments only hours following the Benghazi attack that it indeed was a terrorist attack but later in a CBS interview backtracked by saying that it was too early to determine whether it was a terrorist attack?
- Were Obama and Clinton informed at the time the attack was unfolding? If so, what orders did Clinton give to seek to secure the facility?
- Was Clinton in direct contact at any time with the Secretary of Defense to determine what Special Forces were available to lend assistance? Was she also in contact with the director of the Central Intelligence Agency to ascertain whether he had any assets in the area to rush to the assistance of the beleaguered facility?
- If she had not been informed at the time of the attack, at what level in the Department of State were officials informed and what action, if any, was ordered and with whom in the Defense Department and at CIA were they in contact?
- Who were the State Department officials aware of the pre-911 security requests from Ambassador Christopher Stevens and other U.S. personnel in Libya?
- What was Ambassador Stevens doing in Benghazi without his usual security detail, especially since he had written earlier to the State Department on the poor security at the facility, considering the already dangerous environment of Libya?
- Why were his repeated requests for security either ignored, or turned down?
- Since warnings are issued by the State Department on every anniversary of 9/11 to all posts to heighten security, why wasn't it done at Benghazi, especially since the ambassador was traveling to the facility on a mission known by the State Department and CIA?
- Why weren't U.S. forces directed to be sent in, in light of a statement by the U.S. commander for Africa, Gen. Carter Ham, that he had the capabilities and was ready to go but never directed to go. Why is that?
- Why was a U.S. Marine fast action team out of Rota, Spain, told to take off their uniforms before going in to rescue the ambassador and the other three Americans? Why did the military conclude that the military couldn't do anything? Why didn't the accountability board even look at that? Why did CIA have such a large detail at the safe house location?
- Why did Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick F. Kennedy withdraw from Libya's capital a 16-member special operations forces detachment that was assisting with security, a decision which was made two weeks prior to the Benghazi attack?
- What was the rationale for Kennedy's decision in light of frequent appeals by Ambassador Stevens for enhanced security, as he expressed increasing concern about the deteriorating security environment in Libya and the fact that the Libyan government itself was not in a position to provide adequate security at the U.S. embassy or consulate in Benghazi?
- Considering the increasing volatility in Benghazi and the fact that the consulate there was in an isolated position, why did the State Department and the CIA keep it open?
- There were reports that the two former SEALs – Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty – killed in attempting to protect the ambassador and the consulate were contractors for CIA and their main purpose was to work out of a safe house not far from the consulate, ostensibly to inventory various weapons, some of which separate reporting says were then transferred to the opposition forces in Syria. In light of this prospect, why wasn't more security in place to protect the few CIA contractors who were there?
- In such a high-risk security environment, why was security for the consulate provided by Libyans? Did they stick around to provide security for the consulate once the attack began?
- Since they may not have, there also are indications that some of those providing security at the consulate either tipped off the terrorists or somehow pinpointed where in the consulate to attack, as well as identify the location of the safe houses where U.S. personnel escaped once the attack began. What has the State Department investigation revealed as to collusion with the terrorists by local Libyans charged with providing security for the consulate?
- Why was the FBI barred for 24 days from going to the consulate to secure evidence when reporters were given ready access and had obtained sensitive information which was later turned over to U.S. authorities?
- We were told that four State Department officials involved in the decision-making process on security were removed or resigned. We now learn that isn't true. Why did the State Department lie about the status of those in State Department management responsible for this security debacle?
- In light of the Benghazi experience, has there been any effort by the Obama administration in close coordination with the Defense Department and CIA to revise operational procedures to ensure that quick-reaction armed resources are available much sooner in future instances of impending or actual attack on U.S. facilities abroad?
The issue is stalling Obama's progress in getting new members of his administrative team in place for a second term. A congressional vote on former Sen. Chuck Hagel, who was nominated to replace Panetta, was postponed because of questions over this and other issues.
Also pending is the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. He's been Obama's counterterrorism adviser.
Last weekend on CNN Panetta raised the issue of logistics.
"This is not 911. You cannot just simply call and expect within two minutes to have a team in place. It takes time," Panetta said.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., suggested during Clinton's testimony that the Obama administration appeared to be covering up a gun-running scheme in Benghazi that fell apart when jihadists attacked the U.S. operation there.
Paul has said he's concerned by the "lack of security in advance of the attack, how they responded to the attack and the political coverup after the attack."
Paul said the evidence suggests political motivations throughout, and it appears that a larger agenda was at work.
In an interview with WND, the senator said his "suspicion, although I don't have any proof, is that guns were being smuggled out of Libya, through Turkey and into Syria."
"And that may be what the CIA annex was doing there," Paul said, "and the coverup was an attempt to massage and get over this issue without getting into the gun trade."
He said it was a "dereliction of duty" for Clinton not to have known more about the issues in Benghazi.
Clinton claimed she didn't see a classified State Department cable sent Aug. 16 that said the Benghazi consulate could not defend against a "coordinated attack."
In it was September when WND broke the story that Stevens played a central role in recruiting jihadists to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, according to Egyptian security officials.
According to the 39-page report from independent investigators probing the attacks at the diplomatic facility, the U.S. mission in Benghazi was set up without the knowledge of the new Libyan government, as WND reported.
WND also exclusively reported the facility may have violated the terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which governs the establishment of overseas missions. Like most nations, the U.S. is a signatory to the 1961 United Nations convention.
And WND reported in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice may have deliberately misled the public when she went on television news shows and called the facility that had been targeted a "consulate."