Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was alerted about 50 minutes after the start of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and dispatched troops from Europe within hours, according to the Pentagon.
A timeline released yesterday by the Defense Department counters statements by some Republicans before the Nov. 6 election that President Barack Obama’s administration failed to respond to requests for military aid or for rescue efforts during the Sept. 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. More congressional hearings and briefings on the attack are scheduled next week.
While Obama ordered “all available” Pentagon assets to respond to the attack, no armed planes were near Benghazi at the time, Panetta said yesterday in a letter to members of Congress.
“The U.S. armed forces did everything they were in position to do to respond to the attack in Benghazi,” Panetta said.
An unarmed surveillance drone was directed to the Benghazi compound 17 minutes after the attack began and arrived over the site about 70 minutes later, according to the timeline.
The attack began at 3:42 p.m. Washington time. At a meeting that evening that began at 6 p.m., Panetta authorized the deployment of Marine Corps anti-terrorism teams to Benghazi and Tripoli from Rota, Spain, as well preparation of a Europe-based special operations team. He also ordered a U.S.-based special operations force to prepare to deploy to a staging base in southern Europe.
At 6:30 p.m. Washington time, a six-member security team from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, departed for Benghazi and arrived about an hour later -- almost four hours after the attack began.
A second facility in Benghazi, known as the annex, came under mortar and rocket fire at 11:15 p.m., the Pentagon said.
“The department’s senior leaders and I spared no effort to save the lives of our American colleagues, as we worked to bolster security in response to a series of other threats in the region occurring at the same time,” Panetta said in the letter. Protests were erupting at the time in Muslim countries including Egypt and Tunisia against a video made in the U.S. that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.
The units deployed were ready to perform a variety of missions including a potential hostage rescue, according to a Pentagon official who briefed reporters yesterday.
Pentagon officials didn’t have a real-time, complete picture of what was happening on the ground at the time of the attacks and didn’t know if they would be an hours-long event or continue for a day or longer, he said.
The U.S. Africa Command ordered a C-17 cargo plane in Germany to prepare to deploy to Libya to evacuate Americans about 50 minutes after the second facility in Benghazi came under attack.
The first wave of American personnel departed Benghazi for Tripoli at about 1:40 a.m. Washington time, with a second wave departing at about 4 a.m.
At 8:15 a.m., the C-17 departed Germany for Tripoli. It picked up American personnel and the remains of Stevens and three other Americans and left Tripoli for Germany at 1:17 p.m.
The first of the troops dispatched by Panetta the previous evening began arriving just before 3 p.m. Washington time on Sept. 12, long after the attack had ended. Most got no further than an intermediate staging area in southern Europe.
“Before they arrived in place, the attack in Benghazi had concluded,” Panetta said in his letter.
Arizona Senator John McCain and five other Republican senators who have criticized the administration’s handling of the attack issued a statement yesterday saying they weren’t satisfied with Panetta’s explanation.
“Unfortunately, Secretary Panetta’s letter only confirms what we already knew -- that there were no forces at a sufficient alert posture in Europe, Africa or the Middle East to provide timely assistance to our fellow citizens in need in Libya,” the senators said in the statement. “The letter fails to address the most important question -- why not?”