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 General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were asked by Senator John McCain whether they had supported the recommendation that weapons be provided to the Syrian resistance.
“We did,’’ Panetta said.
“You did support that?’’ the Arizona Republican 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. And with President Obama in the midst of a reelection bid, the White House rebuffed the plan, rejecting the advice of most of the key members of Obama’s national security team.
The New York Times reported Sunday that as the fighting in Syria raged last summer, Petraeus developed the plan, which Clinton supported and that called for vetting rebels and training fighters who would be supplied with weapons.
His proposal offered the potential reward of creating Syrian allies with whom the United States might work, during the conflict and after President Bashar Assad’s eventual removal.
Some administration officials expected the issue to be revisited again after the election. But when Petraeus resigned because of an extramarital affair and Clinton suffered a concussion, missing weeks of work, the issue was shelved.
Panetta was said by some officials to have been sympathetic to the idea, which was presented to the White House last year, though a spokesman for Panetta declined to comment on his role when asked last week.
Dempsey made his comments during testimony with Panetta on the Sept. 11 attack on a US compound on Benghazi, Libya, which led to the deaths of J. Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador, and three other Americans.
Discussing steps to improve security at US 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 US 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 in his prepared remarks.
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.