(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Thursday that the automatic budget cuts prescribed in the sequestration legislation would undermine the Department of Defense’s ability to fulfill its responsibility to protect American citizens.
“This will badly damage our national defense and compromise our ability to respond to crises in a dangerous world,” Panetta told senators at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon’s response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“The responsibility to protect our citizens rests with both the administration and the Congress,” Panetta said.
Panetta talked about the steps the Defense Department had taken to prepare for the sequester — the automatic federal spending cuts scheduled to take effect March 1 — saying they could be reversed as long as they never go into effect.
The hearing was called by senators who wanted Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to explain what measures the Pentagon had taken while the attack in Benghazi was taking place. They also want to know what role the Defense Department should play in embassy security going forward.
Panetta said the Department of Defense had “no specific indications of an imminent attack” leading up to the Benghazi attack on Sept. 11, 2012.
“On that tragic day, as always, the Department of Defense was prepared for a wide range of contingencies. … But unfortunately, there were no specific indications of an imminent attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi,” Panetta said. “Without adequate warning, there was not enough time given the speed of the attack for armed military assets to respond.
“I firmly believe that the Department of Defense and the U.S. Armed Forces did all that we could do in response to the attacks in Benghazi,” Panetta said in his opening remarks. “We employed every asset at our disposal that could have helped save the lives of our American colleagues. We will support efforts to bring those responsible to justice.”
Panetta said the Pentagon was looking to expand the role of the military in diplomatic security going forward, reminding the committee that at the time of the Benghazi attack, the Marines at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli had been charged with protecting classified documents as their main mission, not protecting American diplomats. There were no Marines stationed at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security was responsible for security there.
Panetta warned against using the U.S. military as “a global 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world,” saying the armed forces have “neither the resources nor the responsibility” to do so.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago about the State Department’s role in the security failures that allowed for the attack in Benghazi.
Clinton endured brusque questioning and became emotional herself at times. She once again took responsibility for the State Department’s security failures that led to the attack, but she defended the administration’s actions that day and in the weeks following the tragedy.
“It’s also important to recall that in that same period we were seeing violent attacks on our embassies in Cairo, Sana’a [Yemen], Tunis, Khartoum, as well as large protests outside many other posts where thousands of our diplomats serve,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Panetta made the same point Thursday, saying, “We were also concerned about potential threats to U.S. personnel in Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Sana’a and elsewhere that could potentially require a military response.”
The hearing is expected to be Panetta’s last before he steps down pending the confirmation of his successor, former Sen. Chuck Hagel.
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