Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Thursday revealed he personally broke the news to President Obama that the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, was under attack last year — but he and the president didn’t speak the rest of the night as the assault on the compound unfolded.
Mr. Panetta said he and Mr. Obama, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, discussed the attack for 15 minutes in the Oval Office the afternoon of Sept. 11, and also covered an anti-American protest that had broken out that day at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Panetta said the president told them to “do whatever you need to do to be able to protect our people there,” though when it came to specifics the president “left it up to us.”
Republicans said they were dismayed that the Defense Department’s top officials and Mr. Obama didn’t speak again over the next six hours, during which two attacks claimed the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
“Did he ask you how long it would take to deploy assets, including armed aviation, to the area?” asked Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican.
“No,” answered Mr. Panetta.
“He didn’t ask you what ability you had in the area and what we could do?” Ms. Ayotte asked.
“No,” Mr. Panetta responded again. “I mean, he relied on both myself … and Gen. Dempsey’s capabilities. He knows generally what we have deployed to the region; we’ve presented that to him in other briefings.”
Mr. Panetta is retiring and his testimony likely will be his final appearance on Capitol Hill before he steps down — though it remains to be seen whether his chosen replacement, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, will win confirmation to the post.
Republicans demanded the Benghazi hearing before Mr. Panetta leaves, saying they still had questions about the way the administration handled the run-up, attack and aftermath of the terrorist assault.
Mr. Panetta also fielded questions about other world hot spots during the hearing, including telling Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, that he and Gen. Dempsey had backed a secret plan put forth by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then-CIA Director David H. Petraeus to arm opposition rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad in Syria.
In another exchange, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mr. Panetta said there “were a number of factors that were involved” in Mr. Obama’s ultimate decision not to go through with the plan, but to instead make U.S. assistance to the rebels “nonlethal.”
“And I supported his decision in the end,” Mr. Panetta said.