The top U.S. military officer said he’s surprised former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wasn’t alerted to a cable he knew about warning of threats to the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, before the deadly attack on it.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that the U.S. Africa Command had informed him of a cable from Ambassador Christopher Stevens citing security risks at the Benghazi mission where Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack on Sept. 11.
“I would call myself surprised that she didn’t” know of the cable, Dempsey said of Clinton, who left office last week. Dempsey said the military didn’t provide more security for the Benghazi consulate before the attack because the State Department never asked for it.
While Clinton has said she took responsibility for security failings in Benghazi, she told Congress last month she hadn’t seen any diplomatic cables before the attack requesting heightened protection.
“These requests don’t ordinarily come to the secretary of state,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
An independent review board appointed by Clinton found the State Department showed “a lack of proactive leadership and management ability,” though it said no government employees violated their duties.
Lawmakers and Obama administration officials have debated for months whether security in Benghazi was adequate, given threat assessments in the region at the time, and whether requests for additional security at the Benghazi mission had been denied. The handling of the Benghazi assault became a flashpoint in last year’s presidential election, and the issue hasn’t abated, as was evident in today’s hearing.
Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire questioned why Dempsey didn’t bring the cable from Stevens to Clinton’s attention himself.
“This is a pretty surprising and shocking, important cable to receive from our ambassador,” Ayotte said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested to the Senate panel that the reports of risks in Benghazi were far from unique. He said the National Counterterrorism Center had identified more than 200 facilities “that were under a threat of one kind or another.”
The assault in Libya has been blamed on militants, some of whom may have had links to al-Qaeda terrorists.
After the attack began, Panetta said, U.S. forces didn’t have the time needed to reach the mission because gunships, armed drones and jet fighters “were not in the vicinity of Libya.”
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who called Dempsey’s testimony “bizarre,” criticized Pentagon leaders for not anticipating the need for greater resources based on intelligence reports and the warning from Stevens.
“Our posture was not there because we didn’t take into account the threats to our consulate,” McCain said. “We could have had aircraft and other capabilities a short distance away.”
Senators from both parties pressed for increased military firepower in Africa after the Libya attack exposed limits on Pentagon capabilities in the region.
Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the panel, said the attack raises “questions about the adequacy” of funding, troop strength and intelligence support given to the Africa Command at a time of growing terrorist threats on the continent.
Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the committee’s top Republican, said the Africa Command “consistently faces resources shortfalls.”
Panetta pledged to improve security at diplomatic compounds worldwide with improved intelligence and almost 1,000 additional Marines.
“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 said.
Panetta, who is preparing to retire, agreed to testify on the Benghazi attack after Republican lawmakers led by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina threatened to hold up the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel as his successor unless he did so.
Panetta’s appearance follows the testimony on Benghazi last month by Clinton, whose appearance also was demanded by Republicans before they agreed to move forward with the confirmation of her successor, John Kerry. He took office last week.
Within 17 minutes of initial reports of the assault in Benghazi, the Pentagon sent an unarmed surveillance drone to be stationed over the compound, Panetta said in his testimony.
The only team to arrive on the scene was a six-member security unit, including two U.S. military personnel based in Tripoli, who arrived in a chartered aircraft, Panetta said. Within 15 minutes of arriving at a CIA annex they were under fire and provided emergency medical assistance, Panetta said.
Panetta cited the findings of the five-member review board commissioned by Clinton, which found that “there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”
Since the Benghazi attack, the Pentagon has worked with the State Department to assess security at “19 vulnerable diplomatic facilities, including our embassy in Libya,” Panetta said.
The Pentagon will add 35 new Marine Security Guard detachments over the next two to three years, in addition to the 152 units already in place, Panetta said. The Defense and State departments are working to identify locations for the new Marine units, he said.
The Pentagon is also working with the State Department on expanding the role the Marine units, whose primary job has been to protect classified information at embassies, Panetta said.
The U.S. depends on security personnel of host nations to safeguard diplomatic compounds, Panetta said. To prevent future such incidents in countries with fragile governments unable to protect U.S. assets and personnel, the Pentagon is studying ways to beef up the capabilities of security forces and stepping up intelligence collection to be alerted to potential crises, he said.
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