Pentagon timeline shows military response to Libya

WASHINGTON (AP) — New Pentagon details show that the first U.S. military unit arrived in Libya more than 15 hours after the

attack on the consulate in Benghazi was over, and four Americans, including the ambassador, were dead.

A Defense Department timeline obtained by The Associated Press underscores how far the military response lagged behind the

Sept. 11 attack, due largely to the long distances the commando teams had to travel to get to Libya.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his top

military adviser were notified of the attack about 50 minutes after it

began and

were about to head into a previously scheduled meeting with

President Barack Obama. The meeting quickly turned into a discussion

of potential responses to the unfolding situation in Benghazi,

where militants had surrounded the consulate and set it on

fire. The first wave of the attack at the consulate lasted less

than two hours.

Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in the attack. Intelligence, State Department and military officials have released details

on the response in an effort to answer Republican criticism that the administration was holding back what and when it knew

about the assault.

Panetta and other defense officials have repeatedly said that they did not have armed aircraft or military teams near Benghazi

that could have gotten there quickly.

But there have been persistent questions about whether the Pentagon should have moved more rapidly to get troops into Libya

or had units closer to the area as the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America approached. In particular, there was at

least a 19-hour gap between the time when Panetta first ordered military units to prepare to deploy — between midnight and

2 a.m. local time in Tripoli — and the time a Marine anti-terrorism team landed in Tripoli, which as just before 9 p.m.

A senior defense official on Friday said

forces were at the ready around the globe, but it took time to assess

the murky situation,

evaluate the threats, put plans in place and get the teams there.

With the situation on the ground rapidly evolving, military

officials have said there were a number of potential scenarios

that had to be evaluated, including concerns that the violence

could continue for some time or there could be a hostage situation

to which commandos might have to respond.

In a letter to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Friday, Panetta specifically addressed the claim that the military could have

dispatched armed unmanned aerial vehicles, AC-130 gunships or fighter jets to thwart the attack. Such aircraft were not in

the region and not an effective option, he said.

Panetta said that based on a continuous

evaluation of threats, military forces were spread around Europe and the

Middle East

to deal with a variety of missions. In the months before the

attack, he noted, "several hundred reports were received indicating

possible threats to U.S. facilities around the world" and noted

that there was no advance notice of imminent threats to U.S.

personnel or facilities in Benghazi.

His explanation, however, did not satisfy

McCain. In a statement Friday, McCain said Panetta's letter, "only

confirms what

we already knew — that there were no forces at a sufficient alert

posture in Europe, Africa or the Middle East to provide

timely assistance to our fellow citizens in need in Libya. The

letter fails to address the most important question — why not?"

The attack began at about 9:40 p.m. local

time in Benghazi. Less than 20 minutes later, the U.S. military began

moving an

unarmed drone to a position over Benghazi, so it could provide

real time intelligence to the CIA team on the ground. The CIA

team went to aid the Americans at the consulate. The drone arrived

shortly after 11 p.m. By 11:30 p.m., a CIA team was able

to get all the Americans out of the compound.

As that was happening, Panetta and Army Gen.

Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left the Oval

Office and

went into a series of meetings in the Pentagon with senior leaders

to discuss how to respond to the Benghazi attack and assess

the potential for other outbreaks of violence in the region.

Between midnight and 2 a.m., Panetta began

to issue verbal orders, telling two Marine anti-terrorism teams based in

Rota,

Spain, to prepare to deploy to Libya, and he ordered a team of

special operations forces in Central Europe and another team

of special operations forces in the U.S. to prepare to deploy to a

staging base in Europe.

As the military units begin moving, just

before dawn, the Americans in Benghazi, who were now at the CIA base

less than a

mile away from the consulate, again came under attack around 5:15

a.m. when five mortars were fired at the building. Two missed,

but three hit, killing two CIA security officers who were on the

roof.

The Americans fired back and soon afterward

fled the CIA base for the airport. By 10 a.m., they had flown out,

heading to

Tripoli. Shortly after 7 p.m., the Americans, including the bodies

of the four dead, were flown out of Tripoli on a military

aircraft.

Not until just before 8 p.m., however, did

the first U.S. military unit arrive in the region, as the special

operations team

landed at Cigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily. An hour later,

the Marine team landed in Tripoli. The defense official noted

that even if the military had been able to get units there a bit

faster, there was no way they could have gotten there in

time to make any difference in the deaths of the four Americans.

"The U.S. Armed Forces did everything they were in position to do to respond to the attack in Benghazi," Panetta said in the

letter, obtained by The Associated Press. "The department's senior leaders and I spared no effort to save the lives of our

American colleagues, as we worked to bolster security in response to a series of other threats in the region occurring at

the same time."