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US response to Benghazi attack was too weak, witness says

WASHINGTON (AP) — A retired general who was in the U.S. military’s operation center during the 2012 attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, said Thursday that Washington should have done more to respond during the battle.

Retired Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell told the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform that U.S. forces ‘‘should have tried’’ to get to the embassy in time to help save the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans who were killed by militants in twin attacks the night of Sept. 11, 2012. He said the State Department should have made stronger requests for action.

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State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf countered: ‘‘The notion that the State Department did not do everything possible to protect our people that night is as offensive as it is wrong.’’

‘‘The truth is that multiple assets were deployed to Benghazi that night,’’ she said. Harf listed a six-man team from the CIA outpost a mile away, a Predator drone that provided real-time images of the attack, a seven-person security team from Tripoli and one Marine rapid-response platoon. Some of those did not arrive until after the attack was over.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last year that ‘‘there simply was not enough time, given the speed of the attacks, for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.’’’

Lovell was monitoring the attack from U.S. Africa Command’s headquarters in Germany. He says it was clear that the attack was hostile action.

‘‘Four individuals died. We obviously did not respond in time to get there,’’ he said.

Lovell was asked whether the military was allowed to adequately respond. Lovell said that from his perspective, it was not. ‘‘The military could have made a response of some sort,’’ Lovell said.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats have said repeatedly that the military did what it could to respond on that chaotic night.

Rep. Howard ‘‘Buck’’ McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said earlier this month that he was satisfied with how the military responded, considering where troops were based and how the two separate attacks unfolded.

Leon Panetta, who was defense secretary at the time, was monitoring the attack and has testified to Congress that military assets such as jets were not ready to engage and that efforts to get troops from Tripoli to Benghazi in time were not successful.

Lovell described the mood in Africa Command during the attack: ‘‘It was desperation to gain situational awareness.’’

The Obama administration initially described the attack as a response to an anti-Islamic video that had sparked protests at the embassy in Cairo and elsewhere. Susan Rice, then the U.N. ambassador, went on Sunday television talk shows and described it as such. Those comments have stirred up political opposition ever since, as military and other officials have said it was clear it was a terror attack unrelated to the video.

Lovell told the committee it was clearly not an attack borne of the protests.

The U.S. has not yet identified those responsible but now believes it was done by Islamist militants who set fire to the diplomatic outpost and engaged Stevens’ security officials and others in gunfire. Stevens died of smoke inhalation in a safe room in the diplomatic compound. The diplomats were aided by officials from the CIA outpost a mile away.

A Republican congressman is drafting legislation to give the military and intelligence agency the authority to kill those responsible for the attack. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said Thursday that he will try to add his bill to the annual defense policy legislation when the House Armed Services Committee considers the measure on Wednesday.

Hunter said his legislation is the same as the authority that the Congress gave the government after the Sept. 11 attacks.

‘‘I don’t know why they don’t ask for it. They must not care,’’ Hunter said in an interview. ‘‘It shouldn’t take Congress to do this. They should have asked for this right after the attacks.’’

Hunter said his legislation was prompted by closed-door testimony from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the panel last October that the U.S. cannot strike the perpetrators under the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the 2001 law that applies to terrorists.

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AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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