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GOP senators assail Gen. Dempsey and Obama for response to Benghazi attack

Sen. John McCain reacts to Gen. Martin Dempsey's written statement surrounding the deadly attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

Published at 1:55 p.m. ET: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sharply criticized Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for not deploying U.S. forces so they could rapidly respond to the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

“It’s one of the more bizarre statements I have ever seen in my years on this committee,” McCain told Dempsey, accusing him of failing to place U.S. aircraft ahead of time at bases such as Suda Bay, Crete, where they could  have reached Benghazi within 90 minutes on the day of the attack.

Given the threats and attacks on foreign diplomats in the weeks leading up to Sept. 11, 2012, McCain contended, Dempsey ought to have placed forces closer to Benghazi.

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McCain called Dempsey’s testimony "simply false" regarding U.S. deployments to deter or respond to an attack in Benghazi.

Dempsey “didn’t take into account the threats to that consulate—and that’s why four Americans died,” McCain angrily told the general. In the Sept. 11 assault on the facility, Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods and Sean Smith, were killed.

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The Arizona Republican also contended that “it was almost predictable” that “bad things were going to happen in Libya” in the weeks leading up to the attack because the fledgling government was too feeble to maintain control of the country – and he blamed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and President Barack Obama for not deploying a strong U.S. military presence in the country to help keep order.

For his part Dempsey told McCain that “we never received” a request from the State Department to place forces closer to Benghazi to be poised to respond to an attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility.

“So it’s the State Department’s fault?” McCain asked.

“I’m not blaming the State Department,” Dempsey replied. But he said he was concerned on the day of the Benghazi attack about an array of possible assaults on U.S. facilities not only in Libya but in Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, and other locations in the Islamic world.

Dempsey, along with Panetta, was testifying Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator Saxby Chambliss criticizes the job that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey did to help protect the American citizens killed during an attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

Panetta told the panel there were two short-duration attacks that occurred six hours apart. “We were not dealing with a prolonged or continuous assault which could have been brought to an end by a U.S. military response,” Panetta said.

Both Dempsey and Panetta said the best situation would have been to have had U.S. forces on the ground before the attack to defend the facility.

Two other Republican members of the committee, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, pressed Panetta and Dempsey on how many times they directly briefed Obama on the attack on the day it occurred – the answer was once.

Both Ayotte and Graham implied that Obama ought to have asked more questions and been more involved in keeping apprised of the events in Benghazi in real time. On her Twitter account, Ayotte said while the hearing was in progress, “POTUS outsourced #Benghazi response.”

While the attacks were underway, Graham asked, “did the president show any curiosity about how is this going, what kind of assets do you have helping these people?”

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Panetta replied – citing his experience a former White House chief of staff, “The purpose of staff is to be able to get that kind of information and those staff (members) were working with us.” He added, “The president is well informed about what is going on.”

Graham also questioned Dempsey about Ambassador Stevens’s Aug. 15 cable warning the State Department that the facility in Benghazi couldn’t defend itself if it came under attack. Dempsey told Graham that he was surprised that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not know about that cable.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reflects on the government's response to the September attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

In his testimony, Panetta said the Department of Defense and U.S. armed forces “did all that we could do in response to the attacks in Benghazi.” He explained that “armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones), AC-130 gunships, or fixed-wing fighters with the associated tanking – you’ve got to provide air re-fueling-- armaments – you’ve got to arm all the weapons before you put the on the planes” -- were not in the vicinity of Libya.

He said that even if he’d been able to deploy F-16 fighters or AC-130 gunships over Benghazi in time, “the mission still depends on accurate information about what targets they’re supposed to hit. And we had no forward air controllers there” and no communications with U.S. personnel on the ground.

He said, “because of the distance, it would have taken at least 9 to 12 hours, if not more, to deploy these forces to Benghazi. This was, pure and simple,  -- in the absence as I said of any kind of advance warning -- a problem of distance and time.”

Win Mcnamee / Getty Images

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on the attack on U.S facilities in Benghazi, Libya before the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 7, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

He explained that “unfortunately there were no specific indications of an imminent attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi. Without adequate warning, there was not enough time given the speed of the attack for armed military assets to respond.”

In his testimony Panetta also warned about the effects of the automatic spending cuts – called sequestration - that are mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act and are set to begin on March 1.

“If Congress fails to act and sequestration is triggered, and if we also must operate under a year-long continuing resolution (keeping spending at last year’s levels), we would be faced with a significant shortfall in operating funds for our active forces with only seven months remaining in the fiscal year,” he told the committee. “This will damage our national defense and compromise our ability to respond to crises in a dangerous world.”