Panetta defends response in Libya attack

2013-02-07 22:15
Leon Panetta (Picture: AFP)

Leon Panetta (Picture: AFP)

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Clinton under fire over Benghazi attack

2013-01-24 09:16

The US Secretary of State faced tough questioning in Congress over security failings that led to the deaths of four Americans in an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. Watch.WATCH

Washington - Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday that the speed of the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last September kept US armed forces from responding in time to save the four Americans who were killed.

Testifying for likely the last time in Congress before stepping down, Panetta defended the US military's response on a chaotic 11 September 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 prior to 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 US didn't send more firepower, such as helicopter 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.

"This was, pure and simple, a problem of distance and time," Panetta said.

Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee with Army General Martin Dempsey, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Dempsey reminded the committee that it was "9/11 everywhere" when the consulate was attacked and that US armed forces were prepared to respond to a wide variety of threats around the world.

US posts and facilities in many countries throughout Africa and southwest Asia were operating under heightened protection levels, he said.

"We positioned our forces in a way that was informed by and consistent with available threat estimates," Dempsey said.

‘Cover up’

Senator James Inhofe, the committee's top Republican, wasted little time in criticising the administration for trying to "cover up" what he said was clearly a terrorist attack. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, initially attributed the violence to a protest against an American-made, anti-Islam video.

Rice's comments touched off a deeply partisan feud, with Republicans claiming the Obama White House wanted to obscure the reasons for the incident to help the president's re-election bid.

The criticism of Rice was largely responsible for scuttling her chances to become secretary of state.

"An angry mob doesn't use co-ordinated mortars and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]," Inhofe said.

Panetta is retiring after a Washington career that has stretched across four decades, with years as a California congressman, budget chief, White House chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton and CIA director who oversaw the hunt for and killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

The defence department will bid farewell to Panetta, who has served as defence secretary since June 2011, in a ceremony on Friday.

The committee gave Panetta a round of applause as chair Carl Levin, D-Michigan, praised the Pentagon chief's integrity.

President Barack Obama has nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to succeed Panetta.

In his testimony, Panetta detailed the steps the military took in response to the Libya attack.

He pointed out it was not a prolonged assault that the military could have ended, but rather two attacks that were short in duration and occurred about six hours apart.

"Despite the uncertainty at the time, however, the department of defence and the rest of the US government spared no effort to save American lives," Panetta said.

- AP
Read more on:    leon panetta  |  barack obama  |  us  |  libya  |  benghazi attack
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