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Panetta Defends Benghazi Response

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (left) and U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 7.
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has defended the military's response to the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the defense chief pushed back against Republican criticism that the Obama administration ignored warning signs about an attack.

Panetta said there was no "specific intelligence" about a possible attack in Benghazi. In addition, he said the speed of the attack prevented the military from responding earlier.

"The bottom line is this -- that we were not dealing with a prolonged or continuous assault which could have been brought to an end by a U.S. military response very simply," he said. "Although we had forces deployed to the region, time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, [and] events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response."

Panetta said the Defense Department has made changes to allow quicker decisions on security responses and staff safekeeping at U.S. facilities.

He said Washington has withdrawn diplomatic staff before crises erupted in countries such as Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and Mali.

"The United States military, as I've said, is not, and frankly, should not, be a 9-1-1 service, capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world," Panetta said. "The U.S. military has neither the resources nor the responsibility to have a firehouse next to every U.S. facility in the world."

Panetta also warned lawmakers that looming budget cuts would create a "readiness crisis" for the military.

Panetta said the Pentagon has already put in place a freeze on hiring and cut back on maintenance at bases and facilities.

He said those moves can be reversed if Congress acts quickly to head off the cuts, known as sequestration, and approves a 2013 military budget.

The Defense Department will bid farewell to Panetta, who has served as defense secretary since June 2011, in a ceremony on February 8.

With reporting by AP
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