Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday that the U.S. didn’t send troops to defend the consulate in Benghazi from a terrorist assault last month because the intelligence was too sketchy.
The details emerged as House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, demanded that President Obama explain why his administration failed to heed security warnings ahead of the Sept. 11 attack in Libya, and why it has struggled to explain the matter in the weeks since.
In a letter to Mr. Obama, Mr. Boehner told the president that he must answer questions including why it took the administration two weeks to acknowledge that the assault was a terrorist attack rather than a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islamic video.
“Our country will not be able to move on from the tragedy of September 11, 2012 until the public better understands the answers,” Mr. Boehner wrote.
His letter puts him at the head of a fight that his party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has shied away from. At Monday’s foreign policy debate, Mr. Romney didn’t raise any questions about the White House’s handling of Benghazi, and instead repeatedly praised Mr. Obama’s decision-making.
But House Republicans have pushed the issue, including using their control of the House oversight committee to release internal administration emails that indicate some in the administration should have been quicker to identify the attack, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as a terrorist action.
At the Pentagon, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pleaded Thursday for time for reviewers at the Defense and State departments to finish their work.
“It’s not helpful, in my view, to provide partial answers,” he said.
Mr. Panetta decried “a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking” in the questions his department has faced about why it didn’t send help in the middle of an hours-long assault on the U.S. Consulate.
Mr. Panetta said the military had forces positioned to respond, but the situation was too uncertain to send them in.
“The basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place,” he said. “It was really over before, you know, we had the opportunity to really know what was happening.”
A defense official told The Washington Times that an elite commando team called the Commander’s In-Extremis Force had been deployed to a U.S. air base in Sicily, about an hour’s flight from Benghazi, “within hours” of the start of the attack.
The assault, by dozens of heavily armed extremists supported by mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades, unfolded in two stages over about seven hours.
“The attack was over before any forces were in position,” said the official, who was authorized to speak only on the condition of anonymity.
But the official added that diplomatic concerns also were at play, saying Libya is “a sovereign nation, a sovereign government. That was a consideration.”