U.S. forces in the Mediterranean were on heightened alert for the recent 9/11 anniversary but did not respond to the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi because of the murky intelligence that initially emerged from the scene, the nation's top civilian and uniformed military leaders said Thursday.
"There's a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on here," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, but "we did" have air, land and sea assets in the Mediterranean region that could have been called upon when the consulate in Libya came under siege.
While forces in the Med were ready, "it was 9/11 everywhere in the world" and the military had to be on the alert for a potential crisis in other areas, said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"It was really over before we had the opportunity to really know what was happening," Panetta said.
Panetta said the initial conflicting intelligence reports from the ground ultimately argued against sending in U.S. troops.
"There's a basic principle here that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on" on the ground, Panetta said.
It was the decision of Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, that "we could not put forces at risk in that situation," Panetta said of the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
House and Senate Republicans have charged that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ignored warnings from U.S. intelligence and embassy officials in Libya, and Stevens himself, on the growing security threat from Al Qaeda sympathizers before the 9/11 attack in Benghazi.
U.S. Marine Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Teams eventually were called into Libya, but were sent to protect the embassy in Tripoli. FBI forensics teams, escorted by Special Forces units, did not inspect the crime scene at the Benghazi consulate until about three weeks after the attack.