Defense Secretary Leon Panetta threw his support today behind the nominee to replace him, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, and said the United States didn’t have enough time to respond to the fatal Benghazi attacks.
The outgoing Panetta answered a wide range of questions in what were essentially exit interviews on CNN and NBC.
Panetta said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the U.S. had intelligence about activity among extremist groups but “didn’t have enough time” to respond.
He said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the Obama administration had no warning about the attack, despite U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens’ requests in the prior weeks for more security.
“This is not 9-11,” he said. “You cannot just simply call and expect within two minutes to have a team in place. It takes time.”
Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, terror-related attacks on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
Panetta told the networks that he would be “happy” to testify on the issue. He is scheduled to appear Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has vowed to hold up the Hagel confirmation hearings unless Panetta testifies.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that he would testify Thursday.
Panetta also said that to avoid a similar incident the U.S. must fortify embassies, build “capacity” in host countries and determine whether more Marines should be assigned to such outposts.
“But a lot still depends on intelligence,” he told NBC.
Panetta said “the political knives” came out Thursday when Hagel faced fellow Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing.
He said he was disappointed that the eight-hour hearing focused so much on what Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, had said in the past about Iran, Israel and other matters, instead of what he thinks about today’s issues, including the war in Afghanistan, the fight against terrorism, and looming automatic budget cuts and their impact on military readiness.
“We just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues,” he told NBC. “And in the end, that’s what counts.”
Panetta also said he is confident that Hagel is prepared to succeed him at the Pentagon.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, responding to critics who said Hagel did poorly in the hearing, told ABC’s “This Week,” that he also likely would have had rough spots during such a long hearing.
”Give the guy a break,” Reid said. “I thought he did pretty good.”
If confirmed, Hagel, 66, would be the lone Republican in President Obama’s Cabinet, the first Vietnam veteran to be defense secretary and the first enlisted man to take the post.
Panetta also told NBC that Congress allowing roughly $1.2 trillion worth of spending cuts to kick soon would be “shameful” and “irresponsible.” However, the Pentagon has a plan in place, he said.
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