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The Associated Press reported that the CIA station chief in Tripoli also blamed militants.

Mr. Panetta, in his first public remarks Thursday on why the U.S. military did not send in a combat rescue team, or use air power to strike the attacking militants during the seven- to eight-hour battle, said the military did not have sufficient intelligence.

“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. “And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, Gen. Ham, Gen. [Martin] Dempsey, [Joint Chiefs chairman], and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.”

Asked why the existence of a firefight at the Benghazi annex did not provide a clear picture, Mr. Panetta said: “This happened within a few hours, and it was really over before we had the opportunity to really know what was happening.”

By Sept. 16, the national intelligence director changed his assessment. Mr. Clapper abandoned the “spontaneous” explanation and told the White House that the attack was a planned terrorist operation, a U.S. intelligence official told The Times.

No longer in Libya at the time of the attack, Mr. Nordstrom and Col. Wood later tried to assess the bureaucratic battle they fought to retain more security assets in Benghazi.

“We were fighting a losing battle,” Col. Wood said. “We couldn’t even keep what we had. We were not even allowed to keep what we had.”

Mr. Nordstrom recalled a phone call with a regional director asking for 12 additional agents.

“His response to that was, ‘You’re asking for the sun, moon and the stars,’” the security officer said. “And my response to him, ‘You know what makes [this] the most frustrating about this assignment? It’s not the hardships. It’s not the gunfire. It’s not the threats. It’s dealing and fighting against the people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me.’

“And I ended it by saying, ‘For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building,” Mr. Nordstrom said.