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Friday, February 8, 2013 - Page updated at 06:00 p.m.

Two U.S. defense officials supported plan to back Syrian rebels

By Matthew Schofield
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — America’s two top defense leaders acknowledged Thursday that they had supported a CIA plan, opposed by the Obama administration, to arm Syrian rebels .

The notion of arming the forces trying to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad was also backed by the State Department. But it ran counter to the view from the White House, partly out of an uncertainty about how deeply al-Qaida and other anti-Western Islamist elements had infiltrated the Syrian opposition.

Reporting has revealed that much of the fighting done by the Syrian resistance has been carried out by fighters with ties to the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaida, and by many who fought for al-Qaida in Iraq.

The admission came during an inquiry by the Senate Armed Services Committee into the September attack on the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya. It arose when soon-to-be-retiring Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were being questioned by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who seemed surprised by the answer.

McCain was wrapping up a contentious grilling of the two top Pentagon officials when he said: “And finally, I would ask, again, both of you what I asked you last March when 7,500 citizens of Syria had been killed. It’s now up to 60,000. How many more have to die before you recommend military action? And did you support the recommendation by ... then Secretary of State (Hillary Rodham) Clinton and then head of CIA Gen. (David) Petraeus that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria? Do you support that?”

“We do,” Panetta replied.

“You did support that?” McCain asked a second time.

“We did,” Dempsey said.

The hearing was called to delve into what happened on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, when four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, were killed during attacks on the U.S. Consulate compound.

Republican critics have hammered the Obama administration over the deaths, blaming its lack of response and attacking its explanations afterward. Panetta came prepared.

“The United States military is not and should not be a global 9-1-1 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world,” he said.

He took the opportunity at his likely final appearance before the committee to implore lawmakers to work harder to avoid severe across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to take effect March 1, which he noted is already having a serious impact on military readiness.

But Benghazi was front and center.

Among the most revealing bits of information: Dempsey said the Defense Department had not received a request for more security in Benghazi from the State Department in the months leading up to the attack, and that once the attack took place, military forces arrived as soon as was physically possible.

The most intense questioning came from Republicans, including McCain, who insisted the military response had been inadequate because U.S. forces were at a base in Crete, which he said was only a 90-minute flight away from Benghazi.

Others, including Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., echoed the notion of inadequacy.

As the questioning intensified, Panetta noted that there were 281 credible threats against U.S. installations on the day of the attack. Dempsey insisted many of them had appeared to need as much attention as those directed at Benghazi.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., asked why the military did not send F-16 fighters to Benghazi in the hours after the attack.

“For a couple of reasons,” the Joint Chiefs chairman replied. “This is the middle of the night now. These are not aircraft on strip alert. They’re there as part of our commitment to NATO and Europe. And so, as we looked at the timeline, it was pretty clear that it would take up to 20 hours or so to get them there.

“Secondly, senator, importantly, it was the wrong tool for the job.”

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