By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2013 – The need for U.S. vigilance in thwarting terrorism throughout the Middle East and North Africa led the conversation during dual interviews Pentagon senior leaders took part in today.
In television segments that aired today on CNN’s “State of the Union” and NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey addressed lessons learned following the Benghazi, Libya, embassy attacks on Sept. 11, 2012, and the embassy attack in Ankara, Turkey, Feb. 1, 2013. They also discussed their continued focus on eradicating al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
Panetta said that before his retirement, expected later this month, he expects to testify on Capitol Hill about the Benghazi attacks on Sept. 11, 2013. He noted defense officials are working with the State Department to review embassy security around the – “especially around that part of the world.” He added, “We are taking steps.”
But better security is one of three essential considerations in protecting U.S. embassies, he noted. “You still need to build up the host-country capacity,” Panetta said. “[And] you’ve got to harden these embassies as much as possible.”
Panetta and Dempsey described the complexities of orchestrating personnel and aircraft distance, intelligence and other factors to respond to an attack such as Benghazi.
“This is not 911,” Panetta said. “You cannot just simply call and expect within two minutes to have a team in place; that’s the nature of it.”
Dempsey said the nearest armed aircraft were in Djibouti, Africa, at the time of the Benghazi attacks.
“The distance from Djibouti to Benghazi is the difference from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles,” Dempsey said. “There are some significant physics involved.”
The chairman also maintained that with the alert time and intelligence information available at the time, the U.S. was “appropriately responsive.”
“We’ve learned a lot from the Benghazi incident,” Dempsey said. “We work with the State Department in surveying those parts of the world where there’s a new norm … of instability.”
Dempsey and Panetta agree that many stymied attacks by the U.S. often go virtually unnoticed. Panetta noted the Feb. 1 suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, which left the bomber two gatehouse security guards dead, occurred at the perimeter “nowhere close to the embassy.”
“I think that was good security and … [was] an example of good intelligence … [guiding] us so that we could prevent something more serious from happening,” he said.
Both leaders acknowledged that while AQIM remains a menace to Middle Eastern and North African regions, the U.S. will work with partner nations to contain terrorist organizations and prevent their acquiring chemical or other weapons in the region.
“We’re better when we operate with partners,” particularly in the Middle East, Dempsey said. “We’ve got options for any number of military contingencies, and we’re maintaining both a deterrent and preparedness posture.”
Dempsey said current U.S. planing involves working with partners in Turkey, Jordan and Israel, all of whom “share common interests in making sure these spill-over effects don’t affect them.”
Panetta said as al-Qaida affiliate leaders become more brazen in their movements, as recently happened in Mali, he is pleased with the French initiative to push back extremist encroachment and prevent burgeoning safe havens.
The secretary added that the U.S. and its partners have successfully targeted senior al-Qaida leaders in the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan along the Afghanistan border, as well as in Yemen and Somalia. Planners have long foreseen the eventual need to contain extremists in North Africa has long been foreseen, he added.
“We were always aware that there was AQIM [there],” Panetta said. “Now we’re focused on AQIM as a result … of the French action, but we were also anticipating that we would have to move into North Africa.”
Panetta said he hopes the massive changes happening in the Middle East and North Africa in the wakrt of the “Arab spring” will move toward greater democracy and stability in those regions, but operations against terrorist cells must not ebb.
“Wherever they are, we have to make sure they have no place to hide,” Panetta said. “Bottom line is, al-Qaida is our enemy and we have to make sure we go after them.”