WASHINGTON — Fuzzy intelligence about conditions on the ground during the Sept. 11 assault that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans prevented a faster military response to try to stop the attack, the nation’s top defense official said Thursday.
CIA officials were present in the Libyan city of Benghazi, and CBS news reported that a surveillance drone was dispatched over the U.S. Consulate after it came under attack by militants. Still, those assets didn’t paint a clear enough picture of the fast-changing situation to allow an instant response, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday at the Pentagon.
Among the options were to dispatch fighters or attack aircraft from U.S. bases in Italy.
“The basic principle here is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place,” he said.
As a result, Panetta said, he, along with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and head of U.S. Africa Command Gen. Carter Ham, “felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.”
Panetta referred to criticism of the response that has since arisen as “a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking.”
The assault was over by the time a picture of what was happening because clear, he said. Killed in the attack were Ambassador Chris Stevens, another State Department official and two security personnel.
In the same news conference, Panetta laid out a four-point to-do list for Congress after the presidential election. Topping the list was action to avert sequestration, the automatic budget cuts that will hit the Defense Department if Congress doesn’t cut spending or enact legislation to forestall the cuts.
“There are only 70 days before that happens,” he said. “And Congress is certainly on the clock.”
Panetta also called for legislators to pass the Defense Authorization Bill to fund military operations, as well as to confirm President Barack Obama’s nominations of Marine Gen. John Allen as the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford as Allen’s replacement as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
In addition, Panetta said, Congress must pass cyber legislation to help defense government networks as well as private-sector infrastructure against destruction routed through the Internet.