Before Defense Secretary Leon Panetta revealed that President Obama never talked to him the rest of the night about the response to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi after first learning about it the afternoon of Sept. 11, the White House had tried to dodge questions on whether Mr. Obama handed the issue off to Mr. Panetta to handle.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, Mr. Panetta said he personally broke the news to Mr. Obama that the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, was under attack last year then never spoke to the president again that night.
In late January, however, The Washington Times directly asked the president’s spokesman Jay Carney whether Mr. Obama had given Mr. Panetta “carte blanche to do whatever it took” and why the White House had not released more details about the discussions between Mr. Obama, Mr. Panetta and Mrs. Clinton that afternoon and evening and how decisions were made about not sending a military response and who made them.
At the time, Mr. Carney confirmed that Mr. Obama had learned of the attack from Mr. Panetta at a meeting in the Oval Office, but then said he was “routinely updated” by his national security team, including Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Panetta. In his testimony Thursday, Mr. Panetta said neither he nor Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to Mr. Obama again that night.
“The president spoke to the secretary of defense, who was in the Oval Office when the president learned about initial reports about the attack, to do everything possible to ensure that assistance — whatever assistance can be provided was provided, and that action was taken to secure our facilities in the region and around the world, because as you know, there was unrest taking place in a variety of places at the time,” Mr. Carney said.
“So I think we’ve been very clear about that. And as is the case with developments of this kind, he is routinely updated by his national security team, Tom Donilon and Denis McDonough, John Brennan and others, as well as Secretaries Clinton, Secretary Panetta — and Panetta. And that was certainly the case here.”
When pressed further about who made the decision not to send in a special forces team or a different type of military response — the president or Mr. Panetta — Mr. Carney referred to the Accountability Review Board’s report on the attack, which provides little detail on who made decisions that night.
In his testimony, Mr. Panetta said he and Gen. Dempsey discussed the attack for 15 minutes in the Oval Office the afternoon of Sept. 11, and also covered the anti-American protest that had broken out that day at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Then, Mr. Panetta told the committee, the president told him 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.”
Mr. Dempsey, who was testifying with Mr. Panetta, at one point interjected that the White House’s national security staff followed up throughout the night, and during a later exchange, Mr. Panetta added that neither he nor Mr. Dempsey spoke with Mrs. Clinton on the night of the attack.
Staff writer Guy Taylor contributed to this article.