Pentagon: Benghazi attack too fast, too murky, too risky for U.S. military

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he and other senior military leaders, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, withheld U.S. forces from responding to the scene of the September 11 attack in Benghazi because the situation was deemed too unclear and risky. Panetta said there was not enough “real time information” for him, Dempsey and  Africa ...

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he and other senior military leaders, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, withheld U.S. forces from responding to the scene of the September 11 attack in Benghazi because the situation was deemed too unclear and risky.

Panetta said there was not enough “real time information” for him, Dempsey and  Africa Command’s Gen. Carter Ham, all of whom felt "very strongly" at the time not to deploy any military assistance to the American compound. Panetta and Dempsey, speaking in a Pentagon press briefing, said U.S. forces were on alert and ready.

The Pentagon for the most part has remained shielded from criticism of how the Obama administration handled the Benghazi disaster as it unfolded. At issue for critics is whether the administration determined quickly or accurately enough if the assault was an offshoot of a spontaneous protest or a coordinated terrorist attack, which critics allege required a robust counterterrorism response. Recent commentary has shifted toward the Defense Department and questions over why there was no U.S. military response sent to Benghazi, at least in an attempt to disperse the crowd that was attacking the U.S. site, such as with fighter jet flybys.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he and other senior military leaders, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, withheld U.S. forces from responding to the scene of the September 11 attack in Benghazi because the situation was deemed too unclear and risky.

Panetta said there was not enough “real time information” for him, Dempsey and  Africa Command’s Gen. Carter Ham, all of whom felt "very strongly" at the time not to deploy any military assistance to the American compound. Panetta and Dempsey, speaking in a Pentagon press briefing, said U.S. forces were on alert and ready.

The Pentagon for the most part has remained shielded from criticism of how the Obama administration handled the Benghazi disaster as it unfolded. At issue for critics is whether the administration determined quickly or accurately enough if the assault was an offshoot of a spontaneous protest or a coordinated terrorist attack, which critics allege required a robust counterterrorism response. Recent commentary has shifted toward the Defense Department and questions over why there was no U.S. military response sent to Benghazi, at least in an attempt to disperse the crowd that was attacking the U.S. site, such as with fighter jet flybys.

"There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on," said Panetta. With FAST platoons of Marines and ships parked off of Libya, he said, “We were prepared to respond to any contingency and certainly had forces in place to do that. But the basic principle here is you don’t deploy forces into harms way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real time information about what’s taking place. And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who is on the ground, or in that area, Gen. Ham, Gen. Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.”

Panetta also indicated the seven-hour attack was over too quickly for the Pentagon to have enough information to respond effectively.

“This happened within a few hours and it was clearly over before we had the opportunity to really know what was happening,” he said.

This week, reports surfaced that State Department emails on September 11 indicated the involvement of a terrorist group, but in The Cable, Josh Rogin reports on Thursday those early claims may have been innaccurate

Dempsey would not comment on ongoing Pentagon and State Department investigations, saying “It’s not helpful in my view to provide partial answers. … I can tell you, however, sitting here today that our forces were alert and responsive to what was a very fluid situation.”

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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