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.”
Gen. Dempsey, who was testifying with Mr. Panetta, interjected that the White House’s national security staff did follow up throughout the night.
During a later exchange, Mr. Panetta added that neither he nor Mr. Dempsey spoke with Mrs. Clinton on the night of the attack.
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.
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.
“Unfortunately, to date, much of the discourse about the events surrounding the deadly attack against our facilities in Benghazi has focused on the preparation and dissemination of unclassified talking points,” Mr. Levin said.
While he said the talking points issue may be “relevant,” Mr. Levin argued that more important issues center on the questions of who carried out the Benghazi attack, why they carried it out, and how the United States can bring them to justice and prevent future attacks.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and the committee’s ranking member, asserted otherwise.
“What I think is worse is the cover-up,” Mr. Inhofe said, adding that even as the events in Benghazi were unfolding, there could be no denying that the second wave of the attack, on the annex near the diplomatic post, was “unequivocally a terrorist attack.”
Mr. Inhofe said that Mrs. Rice knew this but went on a string of Sunday morning talk shows anyway to say “something that was completely false.”
“That’s something that can’t be ignored,” he said. “We sit around all day long and talk about the resources that we should have and don’t have. … [But] the big problem here is the cover-up, and nobody talks about it, and that’s a tragedy.”
⦁ Kristina Wong contributed to this report.