WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is determined to position small, quick reaction forces closer to global crises after the rapid assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya last September kept U.S. armed forces from responding in time to save four Americans.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Thursday that they moved quickly to deploy commando teams from Spain and Central Europe last Sept. 11, the chaotic day of the assault on the U.S. installation in Benghazi, but the first military unit didn’t arrive until 15 hours after the first of two attacks.
Time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response, Panetta said in likely his last Capitol Hill appearance before stepping down as Pentagon chief.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of an election-year cover-up of a terrorist attack in the nearly five months since the assault, and they kept up the politically charged onslaught on Thursday.
The military also found itself under attack, with at least one senator accusing the Joint Chiefs chairman of peddling falsehoods.
Faced with repeated questions about where units were during the attack and what they were doing, Dempsey said the military is taking steps to deal with the next crisis.
We’ve asked each of the services to examine their capability to build additional reaction-like forces, small, rapidly deployable forces, Dempsey said.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, put it in layman’s terms: So you are moving the fire stations nearer the ...?
We’re trying to build more firemen. The question is whether I can build the stations to house them, Dempsey answered.
In more than four hours of testimony, Panetta and Dempsey described a military faced with not a single attack over several hours, but two separate assaults six hours apart; little real-time intelligence data; and units too far away to mobilize quickly. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attacks.
That failed to placate Republicans on the panel. In one fierce exchange, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called Dempsey’s statement one of the more bizarre and argued that if the administration had taken security threats seriously, aircraft and other military could have been located at Souda Bay, Crete.