Panetta: Distance, Time Affected Benghazi Response

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Washington, DC – Better intelligence and closer interagency cooperation can help to prevent future crises like the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said here today (February 7).

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta said an exhaustive review of the Benghazi events has established the Defense Department responded appropriately to the attacks. “This was, pure and simple, a problem of distance and time,” he said.

“The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed US military assets to have made a difference,” Panetta told the senators, quoting the Accountability Review Board’s findings.

The secretary and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the committee in what may be Panetta’s last appearance before Congress as defense secretary. Since the attacks, he noted, DOD has fully supported Congressional and State Department efforts to review the actions and decisions surrounding the events in Benghazi.

“The Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no effort to do everything we could to try to save American lives,” said Panetta, noting that two service members were part of the six-man team that evacuated Americans there within 12 hours of the initial attack.

“There will always be a tension between mission effectiveness for personnel -– that ability to get out and do what they’re supposed to do in these countries — and their physical security,” he noted. “We are committed to steps that avoid a ‘bunker mentality’ and yet still afford greater protection from armed attack.”

Panetta said DOD is taking a three-pronged approach to help prevent future attacks on US diplomats and facilities by strengthening host-nation security capabilities, increasing security measures and enhancing intelligence and military response options.

“We have to be able to better assess and build up the capabilities of host governments to provide security,” he said.

While the military doesn’t have primary responsibility for security at US diplomatic missions, he added, “where permissible and appropriate, and in collaboration with the Secretary of State and the US chief of mission in the affected country, we believe that the Defense Department can assist in their development of host-nation forces using a range of security assistance authorities to train and equip these forces.”

DOD also is supporting the State Department’s efforts to harden facilities and reassess diplomatic security, the secretary said. Teams have evaluated 19 vulnerable diplomatic facilities, including the US Embassy in Libya, he added, and officials are in the process of developing recommendations on potential security increases as required.

Over the next two to three years, he said, the Defense Department will assign nearly 1,000 additional Marines to diplomatic security detachments. There are 152 such detachments in place today, the secretary noted, and 35 more will stand up.

Officials also are focused on enhancing intelligence collection and ensuring that US forces throughout the region are prepared to respond to crises, if necessary, Panetta said. He emphasized that the US military is not a global emergency-response service, and troops need good intelligence information to operate effectively.

“We have forces on alert, and we’re prepared to move, but our ability to identify threats, to adjust posture, to prevent plots and respond to attacks to our personnel at home and overseas depends on actionable intelligence, and it always will,” he said.

Therefore, the secretary said, the Defense Department is working to enhance intelligence collection, improve the responsiveness of contingency assets and adjust the location of reaction forces.

“At the same time, we’re working closely with State to ensure they have our best estimate of response times for each at-risk diplomatic facility, so that they can make the best informed decisions about adjustments to their staff presence in areas of increased security threat,” he added.

Panetta closed his statement with a reminder to the committee that he sees budget uncertainty as the greatest security risk facing the nation.

With a “sequestration” mechanism in budget law set to trigger major across-the-board spending cuts March 1, he noted, DOD could lose about $500 billion in funding over the next decade, on top of the $487 billion spending cutback already planned.

“I know the members of this committee share the deep concerns that I have raised about sequestration, and I urge you to do the responsible thing and avoid weakening our national defense,” he said.

Congress, DOD, the State Department and the intelligence community all have a responsibility for the nation’s security, Panetta noted. “If we work together, we can keep our Americans safe,” he said.

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