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 it knew about the assault and when.
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.
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.
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 special operations force team in Central Europe and a special operations force team in the U.S. to prepare to deploy to a staging base in Europe.
As the military units begin moving, just before dawn, a CIA base less than a mile away came under attack and 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 fled the CIA base for the airport. By 10 a.m., they have flown out, heading to Tripoli. Shortly after 7 p.m., the Americans are 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 the staging base in Europe. An hour later, the Marine team landed in Tripoli.
"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."