Under questioning from South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta could not explain why President Barack Obama spoke with him only once on Sept. 11, 2012 during the Benghazi terrorist attack, and never called back for any updates for over seven hours.
Here’s the exchange between Graham, Gen. Martin Dempsey and Sec. Panetta at a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing on Thursday:
SEN. GRAHAM: Your testimony, as I understand it, Secretary Panetta, that you talked to the president of the United States one time.
SEC. PANETTA: I talked to him on Sept. 11 with regards to the fact that we were aware this attack was taking place.
SEN. GRAHAM: One time.
SEC. PANETTA: Right.
SEN. GRAHAM: What time did you tell him that?
SEC. PANETTA: I think that was approximately about 5 o’clock?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, about 5 o’clock.
SEC. PANETTA: About 5 o’clock.
SEN. GRAHAM: General Dempsey, did you ever talk to the president of the United States at all?
GEN. DEMPSEY: I was with the secretary when — at that same time.
SEN. GRAHAM: Did you talk to the president?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Yes.
SEN. GRAHAM: You talked to him how many times.
GEN. DEMPSEY: The same — one time.
SEN. GRAHAM: How long did the conversation last?
GEN. DEMPSEY: We were there in the office for probably 30 minutes.
SEN. GRAHAM: So you talked to him for 30 minutes, one time, and you never talked to him again, either one of you.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Until afterwards.
SEN. GRAHAM: Until after the attack was over.
GEN. DEMPSEY: That’s right.
SEN. GRAHAM: Thank you.
Were there any AC-130 gunships within a thousand miles of Benghazi, Libya?
GEN. DEMPSEY: No, sir.
SEN. GRAHAM: Were there any AC-130 gunships within 2,000 miles of Benghazi, Libya?
GEN. DEMPSEY: I have to go back and look at a map and figure out the distance.
Later in the hearing, Graham asked Panetta if he thought it was “typical” for a commander in chief to make no follow-up phone calls.
SEN. GRAHAM: Are you surprised that the president of the United States never called you, Secretary Panetta, and say, ‘how’s it going?’
SEC. PANETTA: I — you know, normally in these situations –
SEN. GRAHAM: Did he know the level of threat that –
SEC. PANETTA: Let — well, let me finish the answer. We were deploying the forces. He knew we were deploying the forces. He was being kept updated –
SEN. GRAHAM: Well, I hate to interrupt you, but I got limited time. We didn’t deploy any forces. Did you call him back — wait a minute –
SEC. PANETTA: No, but the event — the event was over by the time we got –
SEN. GRAHAM: Mr. Secretary, you didn’t know how long the attack would last. Did you ever call him and say, Mr. President, it looks like we don’t have anything to get there anytime soon?
SEC. PANETTA: The event was over before we could move any assets.
SEN. GRAHAM: It lasted almost eight hours. And my question to you is during that eight-hour period, did the president show any curiosity about how’s this going, what kind of assets do you have helping these people? Did he ever make that phone call?
SEC. PANETTA: Look, there is no question in my mind that the president of the United States was concerned about American lives and, frankly, all of us were concerned about American lives.
SEN. GRAHAM: With all due respect, I don’t believe that’s a credible statement if he never called and asked you, are we helping these people; what’s happening to them? We have a second round, and we’ll take it up then.
SEC. PANETTA: As a former chief of staff to the president of the United States, the purpose of staff is to be able to get that kind of information, and those staff were working with us.
SEN. GRAHAM: So you think it’s a typical response of the president of the United States to make one phone call, do what you can and never call you back again and ask you, how’s it going, by the way, showing your frustration we don’t have any assets in there to help these people for over seven hours?
SEC. PANETTA: The president is well-informed about what is going on. Make no mistake about it.
SEN. GRAHAM: Well, that is interesting to hear.