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But the Benghazi attack dominated the hearing.

In his prepared testimony, Mr. Panetta told senators the Pentagon is working with the State Department to ramp up security at diplomatic posts in dangerous corners of the world, but that it may be two or more years before necessary improvements are made.

“We have agreed with the Department of State to add 35 new Marine Security Guard detachments over the next two to three years, in addition to the 152 detachments in place today,” Mr. Panetta said.

But it was the testimony about communications with the White House that drew the most attention at Thursday’s hearing, held nearly five months after the Benghazi attack.

With Gen. Dempsey beside him at the witness table, Mr. Panetta asserted that the U.S. military “spared no effort to save” the lives of Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.

He argued that the manner in which the violence unfolded in Benghazi — with an attack on a diplomatic post, where Mr. Stevens is believed to have died, and a second on a nearby CIA annex, where the former SEALs were killed — rendered an effective counterstrike or rescue attempt impossible.

“These were actually two short-duration attacks that occurred some six hours apart,” Mr. Panetta said. “We were not dealing with a prolonged assault that could have been brought to an end by a U.S. military response.”

The assertion drew a harsh criticism from Mr. Graham, who asked: “Did you know how long the attack was going to last, Secretary Panetta?”

“No idea,” the defense secretary responded.

“Was any airplane launched anywhere in the world to help these people?” pressed Mr. Graham as the tension filled the hearing room.

Mr. Panetta said C-130 aircraft were ultimately flown in to evacuate American survivors, but Mr. Dempsey responded that if Mr. Graham was “talking about a strike aircraft,” the answer was no.

The exchange seemed to define Thursday’s hearing, during which Republicans demanded to know why there had not been a more robust U.S. military response to the attack and why the Obama administration had not immediately recognized the incident as a coordinated act of terrorism.

Five days after the attack, Susan E. Rice, the Obama administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, appeared on a string of talk shows with assertions that the attack began as a protest against an anti-Islam video on YouTube — no different from other protests that were unfolding at the time across the Middle East.

Administration critics suggest Mrs. Rice was given talking points by the White House as part of an effort to “cover up” what had actually occurred in Benghazi, since the attack came just as Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign was touting the president’s success in “decimating” the leadership of al Qaeda.

But committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, tried to steer proceedings away from those insinuations.

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