WASHINGTON -- U.S. military commanders decided against sending a rescue mission to Benghazi during the attack against the American diplomatic mission last month because they didn’t have enough clear intelligence to justify the risk to the troops, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday.
Panetta, in his fullest comments yet on the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, said Pentagon officials were aware of the assault by armed militants soon after it began Sept. 11. But he said they never had more than fragmentary information during the course of the attack.
The “basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s taking place,” Panetta told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “This happened within a few hours, and it was really over before we had the opportunity to really know what was happening.”
He said he, Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all believed“very strongly that we could not put troops at risk in that situation.”
Panetta’s comments came after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) released a letter he had sent to President Obama demanding more details of the administration’s handling of the incident, including the military response.
Panetta said there was “a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on.”
The Defense secretary and other senior Pentagon officials were at the White House that afternoon for a previously scheduled meeting. Later that evening, they decided to order two warships to the coast of Libya and send a special operations team from Central Europe to Sicily to be closer to Benghazi.
But because of the lack of precise information, they didn't make that decision until after the attack was over, officials said. A small team of soldiers flew to Benghazi from Tripoli, 400 miles away, and ultimately helped evacuate about two dozen diplomats and other embassy employees.
Republicans have sought to portray the attack as a symbol of a failed administration policy. U.S. officials have said they had no credible intelligence indicating that an attack was being planned in Benghazi.
The incident is under investigation by House and Senate committees, the FBI and a special State Department review panel.
-- Paul Richter
Photo: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey answer questions at a Pentagon news conference on Oct. 25, 2012, about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images