Top Pentagon officials say they supported arming Syrian rebels

Washington - Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told Congress on Thursday that the Pentagon had supported a plan to arm Syrian rebels that was developed last year by David H. Petraeus, the CIA director at the time, and backed by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was then serving as secretary of state.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were asked by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., if they had supported the recommendation that weapons be provided to the Syrian resistance.

"We did," Panetta said.

"You did support that?" McCain asked again.

"We did," Dempsey added.

The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria.

Dempsey made his comments during testimony with Panetta on the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. compound on Benghazi, Libya, which led to the deaths of J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador, and three other Americans.

Discussing steps to improve security at U.S. compounds abroad, Panetta said that it would take two to three years to add the 35 new Marine security guard detachments that the United States plans to deploy to improve the security of U.S. diplomatic compounds abroad.

The Marines have guard units at 152 diplomatic compounds, but did not have one in Benghazi when the assault occurred.

Panetta said that the role of the Marines detachments would be expanded beyond protecting classified information at the compounds.

"This could include expanded use of nonlethal weapons, and additional training and equipment, to support the Embassy Regional Security Officer's response options when host nation security force capabilities are at risk of being overwhelmed," Panetta said.

Panetta said that the Pentagon was not able to respond more quickly to the Benghazi episode because it had not received an intelligence alert about an impending attack.

When the attack began, the Pentagon had no forces that could be rapidly sent to Benghazi or to protect diplomatic outposts in Tunisia, Egypt or Algeria that might also have come under assault on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The closest AC-130 gunship was in Afghanistan. There are no armed drones thought to be within range of Libya.

The Africa Command, whose area of operation includes North Africa, also did not have on hand a force able to respond rapidly to emergencies - a Commanders' In-Extremis Force, or CIF, as it is known.

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