Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta
(CBS NEWS) -- Amid protracted Republican criticism of the U.S. response to the
September 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
this morning continued to stand up for the Obama administration's
actions surrounding the violence, arguing in a Senate Armed Services
Committee hearing that while the U.S. lacked sufficient advance
intelligence to anticipate the attacks, we did "everything we could" to
save American lives once they had begun.
Panetta, who is
finishing out his tenure as the president's top Pentagon official,
allowed that extensive steps can and are being taken to prevent similar
attacks in the future, and he outlined some of the actions he and other
top defense officials have already authorized to that end.
like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month, Panetta
emphasized the sheer number of security threats faced by U.S. diplomats
abroad in the months leading up to the Benghazi attacks, pointing out
that Benghazi was one of "almost 300 areas of concern" to the National
Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
"The NCTC, in the six months prior to that attack, identified
some 281 threats to U.S. diplomats, diplomatic facilities, embassies,
ambassadors and consulates worldwide -- and obviously Benghazi was one
of those almost 300 areas of concern," he said.
On September 11,
he said he and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, "received a number of reports of possible threats to U.S.
facilities, including those in Cairo, Egypt."
"But there were no
reports of imminent threats to U.S. personnel or facilities in
Benghazi," he said. "Unfortunately, there was no specific intelligence
or indications of an imminent attack on that - U.S. facilities in
Benghazi. And frankly without an adequate warning, there was not enough
time given the speed of the attack for armed military assets to
Barring prior intelligence of the attacks, Panetta
argued, the U.S. defense forces could only respond to those which had
already begun - and he defended that response as timely and appropriate.
the uncertainty at the time, 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," he said. "The bottom line is this, that
we were not dealing with a prolonged or continuous assault, which could
have been brought to an end by a U.S. military response, very simply,
although we had forces deployed to the region. Time, distance, the lack
of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground
prevented a more immediate response."
While Panetta defended the
Obama administration's response from a defense standpoint, the
committee's top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he was more
concerned with the government "cover-up" that he argued followed the
"We sit around all day long and talk about the resources
that we should have and don't have, not just here and not just in this
part of the world, but all over the world and... that's fine," he said.
"I think we all understand that. But that's not the big problem here,
and the big problem here is the cover-up that nobody talks about, and
that's the tragedy."
Beginning his questioning later in the hearing, Inhofe added: "I think the skunk is about to arrive at the picnic."
committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., meanwhile, focused on
the looming sequestration cuts that threaten to cut more than half a
trillion dollars of defense spending - a topic about which Panetta has
spoken vocally in recent weeks.
Panetta, in his opening remarks,
referred to the sequester cuts as "one of the greatest security risks
we're now facing as a nation," and which he argued "could prompt the
most significant readiness - military readiness crisis in more than a
"We have a responsibility -- and I take that
responsibility seriously -- to do everything we can to protect our
citizens," he said. "That responsibility, however, rests with both the
executive branch and the Congress. If we work together, we can keep our