By Tom Vanden Brook and Catalina Camia
WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a Senate panel Thursday that "lack of adequate warning" and logistical issues prevented the military from immediately responding to the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya last year.
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, died in the Sept. 11 attack at the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
Panetta said there was no specific intelligence of an imminent attack on Benghazi. The consulate was among 281 other sites that had been threatened in the months leading up to the attack.
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"There was not enough time given the speed of the attack for armed military assets to respond," Panetta told the Armed Services Committee, adding that "time and distance" challenged the American response.
Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also told the committee they were among a group of national security advisers who recommended the United States arms rebels fighting the Syrian government of Bashar Assad but were overruled by President Obama.
"Obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president's decision to make it nonlethal," Panetta said. "I supported his decision in the end."
In a statement released after the exchange, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it was unfortunate that Obama did not follow their advice.
The hearing comes on a busy day for Obama's national security team. CIA director-designate John Brennan, the current counter-terrorism adviser, will testify in a separate Senate hearing on the Obama administration's use of drones to kill suspected al-Qaeda leaders.
Panetta said the lessons of Benghazi show "the United States military is not and should not be a global 911 service capable of arrive on the scene on minutes to every possible contingency around the world."
At the time of the attacks, the military's Africa Command lacked a quick-reaction force that could have deployed to Benghazi. It obtained one on Oct. 1, Panetta told the committee.
The Defense secretary identified steps to prevent attacks in three areas: beefing up security forces in host nations; adding security to 19 diplomatic missions, including Libya; and better intelligence.
The questioning of the defense officials follows the sometimes emotional and fiery testimony of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was grilled two weeks ago by Senate and House panels about the attack in her final appearance on Capitol Hill as secretary of State.
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, said Thursday the attack "calls into question" the U.S. counterterrorism efforts in North Africa. Inhofe charged the Obama administration with a "cover up" about the nature of the attacks, and chided Obama officials for providing inadequate information in its aftermath.
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"The skunk is about to arrive at the picnic," Inhofe said before questioning Panetta and Dempsey.
In his opening remarks, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., noted that the U.S. combat command for Africa - which includes Libya - "did not have an emergency-response force" but shared one with the European Command.
Panetta said the U.S. combat command for Africa sent a drone to Benghazi within 17 minutes of the attack.
Armed drones, AC-130 gunships and other warplanes "were not in the vicinity of Libya," Panetta said, and were at least nine hours from being able to conduct strikes. Even then, Panetta said they would not have had targetting intelligence to launch strikes.
McCain said the attack was almost predictable and chided Dempsey's statement to the committee as "one of the most bizarre I've ever seen." McCain said military forces and aircraft could have been in position, but were not.
McCain, a frequent critic of Obama's foreign policy, blamed the White House policy of maintaining a "light footprint" in Libya, which was a weak government. The senator questioned why U.S. forces on Crete, 90 minutes by air from Libya, were not used.
He also criticized Panetta and Dempsey for not supporting military action in Syria.
During sharp questioning of Dempsey, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told the Joint Chiefs chairman that he "failed to respond" to the need for security in Benghazi. Dempsey disputed that, saying the military had not been asked by the State Department to do more.
Chambliss challenged Dempsey to name another place that was more threatened at the time of the Benghazi attack. Yemen, Dempsey replied, where the U.S. ambassador had been threatened repeatedly.
The latest Benghazi hearing comes as Obama tries to get his new national security team in place, amid pushback from Republicans. An Armed Services Committee vote on Chuck Hagel's nomination to replace Panetta as Defense secretary was postponed so the embattled nominee, a former senator and Republican, can answer questions in writing.
Thursday's hearing is likely to be Panetta's final appearance before Congress, where he served for years as a House member from California. The Pentagon has scheduled a farewell ceremony for Panetta on Friday.