Transcript: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on the DOD’s response to the Benghazi attack & impact of sequestration

Transcribed & edited by Jenny Jiang

Partial transcript of testimony by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on the DOD’s response to the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 7, 2013:

Chairman Levin, Sen. Inhofe, members of the committee, I appreciate the opportunity to be here today to discuss the terrorist attacks on our facilities in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012…

On that tragic day, as always, the Department of Defense was prepared for a wide-range of contingencies.

I’d just remind you that the NCTC in the 6 months prior to that attack identified some 281 threats to U.S. diplomats, diplomatic facilities, embassies, ambassadors, consulates worldwide, and obviously Benghazi was one of those almost 300 areas of concern.

But unfortunately, there was no specific intelligence or indication 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 our military assets to respond. That’s not just my view or Gen. [Martin] Dempsey’s view. It was the view of Accountability Review Board that studied what happened on that day.

In the months since the tragedy at the temporary mission facility and the nearby annex in Benghazi, we’ve learned that there were actually two short duration attacks that occurred some 6 hours apart. And again, there was no specific intelligence that indicated that a second attack would occur at the annex, which was located some 2 miles away.

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 have forces deployed to the region, time, distance, the lack of an adequate, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response.

Despite 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. Before, during, and after the attack, every request that the Department of Defense received, we did – we accomplished.

But again, 4 American lives were lost and we all have a responsibility to make sure that that does not happen again. The 4 Americans who perished in Benghazi – Ambassador [Chris] Stevens, Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and the security personnel all were heroes and all were patriots.

I had the opportunity to join the President, Secretary Clinton, and other officials at Andrew Air Force base for the dignified transfer ceremony when those bodies of those heroes were returned home, and I had the opportunity to meet with their families.

I believe we all have a solemn responsibility to these families and to all the diplomatic personnel who put themselves at risk to find out exactly what happened, to bring those involved to justice, and to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to prevent it from happening again and to ensure the safety of our personnel and facilities worldwide.

To that end, the Department of Defense has fully supported the efforts by Congress and State Department to review the events and decisions surrounding the attacks in Benghazi. We have made every effort to respond promptly to numerous requests for additional information, to provide briefings, to provide testimonies to members in committees in the Congress.

In fact, Gen. Dempsey and I were among the very first U.S. government senior officials to brief Congress on this tragedy. We appeared before this committee on Sept. 14, 2012 – 3 days after the attack and provided the best information that we had at that point as to what had taken place.

Additionally, the Defense Department participated in classified briefings and answered questions from the intelligence, foreign affairs, and homeland security oversight committees even when we were not called to testify.

We’ve also provided all requested support to the Accountability Review Board that was co-chaired by Ambassador [Thomas] Pickering and by Admiral [Mike] Mullen. They studied information that we’ve compiled and the reviews that we’ve conducted.

Let me describe to you DOD’s response to the events on Sept. 11th, some of the lessons that we’ve learned, and the adjustments we are making to our global force posture given continuing unrest throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

In fact, in many places, if we get the heads-up that we need, the changes that we’ve made have already resulted in early decisions to deploy additional security or withdraw diplomatic staff in advance of a crisis from Central America to Khartoum, from Tunisia to Yemen, from Egypt to Mali, and others.

While DOD does not have the primary responsibility for the security of U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world, we do work closely with the State Department and support them as requested.

In the months prior to the Benghazi attack, as I’ve said, we have received from the intelligence community almost 300 reports on possible threats to American facilities around the world.

Over the course of the day on Sept. 11th, Gen. Dempsey and I received a number of reports on possible threats to U.S. facilities, including those in Cairo, Egypt, but there were no reports of the imminent threats to U.S. personnel or facilities in Benghazi.

By our best estimate, the incident at the temporary mission facility in Benghazi began at about 3:42 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Sept. 11th. The Embassy in Tripoli was notified of the attacks almost immediately.

Within 17 minutes of the initial reports, about 3:59 p.m., AFRICOM directed an unarmed and unmanned surveillance aircraft that was nearby to re-position overhead the Benghazi facility. My understanding is that that UAV arrived in about 1 hour 11 minutes after the attack had begun on the primary facility there to try to determine what was taking place.

Soon after the initial reports about the attack in Benghazi we received, Gen. Dempsey and I met with President Obama and he ordered all available DOD assets to respond to the attack in Libya and to protect U.S. personnel and interests in the region.

It’s important to remember that in addition to responding to the situation in Benghazi, we were also concerned about potential threats to U.S. personnel in Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Sanaa, and elsewhere that could potentially require a military response.

In consultation with Gen. Dempsey and AFRICOM commander Gen. [Carter] Ham, I directed several specific actions. First, we ordered a Marine fleet anti-terrorism secure team – a FAST team – stationed in Spain to prepare to deploy to Benghazi. A second FAST platoon was ordered to prepare to deploy to the Embassy in Tripoli. A special operations force, which was training in Central Europe, was ordered to prepare to deploy to an intermediate staging base in Southern Europe – Sigonella. And a special operations force based in the United States was ordered to deploy to an intermediate staging base in Southern Europe as well as Sigonella.

Some have asked why other types of armed aircrafts were not dispatched to Benghazi. The reason is because armed UAVs – AC-130 gunships or fixed-wing fighters – with the associated tanking – you’ve got to provide air re-fueling abilities – armaments – you’ve got to arm all the weapons before you put them on the planes – targeting and support facilities were not in the vicinity of Libya. And because of the distance, it would have taken at least 9 to 12 hours, if not more, to deploy these forces to Benghazi.

This was, pure and simple, in the absence, as I said, of any kind of advanced warning a problem of distance and time.

Frankly, even if we were able to get the F-16s or the AC-130s over the target in time, the mission still depends on accurate information about what targets they’re supposed to hit, and we had no forward air controllers there…we had no communications with U.S. personnel on the ground. And as a matter of fact, we had no idea where the ambassador was at that point to be able to find or conduct any type of attacks on the ground.

The quickest response option available was a Tripoli-based security team that was located at the Embassy in Tripoli, and to their credit, within hours this 6-man team, including 2 U.S. military personnel, chartered a private airplane, deployed to Benghazi.

Within 15 minutes of arriving at the Annex facility, they came under attack by a mortar and rocket-propelled grenades.

Members of this team, along with others at the Annex facility, provided emergency medical assistance and supported the evacuation of all personnel.

Only 12 hours after the attacks had begun, all remaining U.S. government personnel have been safely evacuated from Benghazi.

Looking back, our actions in the immediate aftermath of these attacks have been subject, obviously, to intense scrutiny and review. But let me share with you the conclusion of the Accountability Review Board, which I believe, accurately assessed the situation.

And I quote: “The inter-agency response was timely and appropriate but there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference. Senior-level inter-agency discussions were underway soon after Washington received initial words of the attacks and continued throughout the night. The board found no evidence of any undue delays in decision-making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders. Quite the contrary, the safe evacuation of all U.S. government personnel from Benghazi 12 hours after the initial attack and subsequently to Ramstein Air Force Base was the result of exception U.S. government coordination and military response and helped save the lives of 2 severely wounded Americans.”

Still, after all of that, it is clear that there are lessons to be learned here and steps that must be taken to ensure that we’re doing everything possible to protect our personnel in our facilities abroad.

So in concert with our State Department and the intelligence community, we are in the process of developing enhanced security for U.S. persons and facilities in the wake of Benghazi. There will always be a tension between mission effectiveness for personnel – the ability to get out and do what they’re supposed to do in these countries – and their physical security. We’re committed to steps that avoid a bunker mentality and yet we still afford greater protection from armed attack.

We’re taking steps on 3 tracks.

First, host nation capacity. We have been able to better assess and build up the capabilities of host governments to provide security for U.S. personnel and facilities. The fact is, as you all know, that our embassies and consulates depend on host country personnel to provide the first line of security. And this episode raises concerns about the ability of some newly-established or fragile governments to properly secure or manage U.S. diplomatic facilities.

To address these concerns, we are working the State Department in considering how the DOD can better help host nations and, hence, the security provided to our diplomatic facilities. Where permissible and appropriate, a collaboration with the Secretary of State and the U.S. Chief of Missions in the affected country, we believe that the Defense Department can assist in their development, using a range of security assistance authorities to train and equip those forces in the host country, and we are doing exactly that.

Secondly, we have to enhance diplomatic security. We’ve got to harden these facilities. We, again, are working with the State Department to try to reassess diplomatic security overall. To determine what changes may be required, we assisted the State Department in the deployment of inter-agency security assessment teams to evaluate the security level at 19 vulnerable diplomatic facilities, including our Embassy in Libya, and we’re in the process of developing recommendations on potential security increases as required.

As part of this review, we have also considered how the whole mission and resourcing of the Marine security guards could be adapted to respond to this new threat environment. In the near term, we agree with the Department of State to add 35 new Marine security guard detachments – that’s almost 1,000 Marines – over the next 2 or 3 years in addition to the 152 detachments that are in place today. We’re working with State to identify those specific locations for the new detachments and we will identify any necessary resources, force structure adjustments in order to support this initiative.

Although there was not a Marine security guard detachment posted to the Benghazi temporary mission facility, based on our review of all embassy security incidents that occurred in September of 2012 in Tunis, in Cairo, in Khartoum, and in Sanaa, we have initiated coordination with the Department of State to expand the Marines’ role beyond their primary mission of protecting classified information. As some of you know, their primary mission is not providing outside security. Their primary mission is to protect our classified information. But we believe that we can try to augment their role in terms of providing greater security protection as well. This could include the expanded use of non-lethal weapons, additional training and equipments to support the embassies’ Regional Security Officers’ response options when host nation security force capabilities are at risk of being overwhelmed.

The third area is enhanced intelligence and military response capacity. We are focused on enhancing intelligence collection and ensuring that our forces throughout the region are prepared to respond to crises if necessary. The United States military, as I’ve said, is not and frankly should not be a 9-1-1 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world. The U.S. military has neither the resources nor the responsibility to have a firehouse next to every U.S. facility in the world. We have some key bases, particularly in this region. We have some key platforms from which we can deploy, and 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. Therefore, we’re working with the State Department and the intelligence community to ensure that our collection and analysis is linked with military posture and planning. We’re working to enhance our intelligence collection, to improve the responsiveness of contingency assets, and to adjust the locations 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 threats.

We’ve deployed key response forces abroad. We have reduced their response time but let me again say to you that even those forces that are on a tight alert time of N+2 – notice plus 2 hours to be able to get on a plane, once those forces are put on airlift, it still requires many hours in that part of the world to fly distances – long distances – in order to be able to respond.

I firmly believe that the Department of Defense and U.S. Armed Forces did all we could do in response to the attacks in Benghazi. We employed every asset at our disposal that could have been used to help save lives for our American colleagues.

We will support efforts to bring those responsible to justice and we are working with the task force involved, headed up by the FBI to do just that.

As I said going forward, we intend to adapt to the security environment to ensure that we’re better positioned and prepared to support the Department of State in securing our facilities around the world. But in order to be able to be effectively protect the American people and our interests abroad at a time of instability, we must have an agile and ready force able to quickly respond.

And above all, forgive me for being repetitious, we have got to end the cloud of budget uncertainty that hangs over the Department of Defense and the entire U.S. government. I’ve got to use this opportunity to express again my greatest concern as Secretary and frankly one of the greatest security risks we are facing as a nation that this budget uncertainty could prompt the most significant military readiness crisis in more than a decade.

The Department of Defense faces the prospect of sequestration on March 1st. If Congress fails to act, sequestration is triggered. And if we also must operate under a year-long continuing resolution, we would be faced with having to take about $46 billion plus out of the defense budget and we would face a $35 billion shortfall in operating funds alone for our active forces with only a few months remaining in the fiscal year. Protecting the war fighters, protecting the critical deployments we have, we’re going to have to turn to the one area that we have in order to gain the funds necessary and that’s readiness – it’s maintenance. This will badly damage our national defense and compromise our ability to respond to crises in a dangerous world.

The responsibility in dealing with this crisis obviously rests with the leadership of this nation. I know the members of this committee share the deep concerns that I’ve raised about sequestration, and obviously, I urge you to do whatever you can to try to avoid this threat to our national defense.

State Department and the intelligence community obviously also must be provided the resources they need in order to execute the missions that we expect of them, including the enhancements that I’ve described today. Whatever steps are required to be taken to properly posture U.S. forces for possible emergency response operations, those steps would be seriously impacted by the readiness crisis caused by uncertain resources.

We have a responsibility – and I take that responsibility seriously – to do everything we can to protect our citizens. That responsibility, however, rest with both the executive branch and the Congress. If we work together, we can keep our Americans safe.

Thank you.