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Today, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta appeared one more time on Capitol Hill before he ends more than four decades in public service. Today was not exactly a victory lap. The subject was Benghazi. In the Senate hearing, Republicans sharply criticized the Pentagon's response to the deadly attack last year on the U.S. consulate.
NPR's Tom Bowman has our story.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Within 17 minutes of the attack on the consulate, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the Pentagon responded. A surveillance drone flew over Benghazi. It arrived about an hour after the attack began. U.S. forces deployed from Europe and the United States, but they arrived a day after the attack ended. Armed aircraft were not in the area, Panetta said, and would have taken hours to get there.
So it fell to a six- man security team to respond from the embassy in Tripoli. They had to charter a plane to get to Benghazi, Panetta said, but did arrive in time to join the fight.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: They came under attack by 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.
BOWMAN: Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, who appeared with Panetta, said the military's response was appropriate. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, called that one of the most bizarre statements he's ever heard.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: What would have been an inappropriate response - no forces arrived there until well after these murders took place.
BOWMAN: McCain launched one of the main criticisms: that the Obama administration should have known Benghazi was dangerous before the deadly attack.
MCCAIN: We could have placed forces there. We could have had aircraft and other capability a short distance away. So for you to testify before this committee that they were consistent with available threat estimates is simply false.
BOWMAN: General Dempsey told Senator McCain that any military response requires intelligence about a possible attack and a request for help from the State Department.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: But we never received a request for support from the State Department, which would have allowed us to put...
MCCAIN: So it's the State Department's fault?
DEMPSEY: I'm not blaming the State Department. I'm sure they had their own...
MCCAIN: Who would you blame?
BOWMAN: General Dempsey said that there were other threats to American embassies in the region: in Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
MCCAIN: Did they rise to that level that they could not withstand a sustained attack?
DEMPSEY: Yes, they were...
MCCAIN: They did?
DEMPSEY: Yes, they did.
SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS: General Dempsey, I take that as a very weak response.
BOWMAN: That's Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, another Republican who thought the Pentagon could have done more before the attack.
CHAMBLISS: You are the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. You knew what was happening in Benghazi. You failed to respond in a way that provided security to that particular United States mission complex.
BOWMAN: Several Republicans pressed Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey about what happened the night of the attack: How many times did they speak with the president? The answer, once, though Panetta said the president was kept up to date by his staff. Why weren't attack aircrafts sent in? Secretary Panetta said there were no clear targets and there were civilians in the area.
PANETTA: You can't just willy-nilly send F-16s there and blow the hell out of a place without knowing what's taking place.
BOWMAN: Since the attack, changes have been made. More cargo aircraft have been set aside to move troops faster and more Marines will deploy to embassies to provide protection.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.