"[The] basic principle is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what's taking place," Panetta told Pentagon reporters. "And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, Gen. Ham, Gen. Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation."
Panetta was referring to Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In a letter to President Obama on Thursday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) questioned whether the White House considered military options during or immediately after the attack, and he questioned what the president knew about the security threats in the country. He said that the national debate over the incident shows that Americans are concerned and frustrated about the administration's response to the attack.
"Can you explain what options were presented to you or your staff, and why it appears assets were not allowed to be pre-positioned, let alone utilized? If these reports are accurate, the artificial constraint on the range of options at your disposal would be deeply troubling," Boehner wrote.
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack, which has become a heated campaign issue less than two weeks before the election. Republicans have criticized the Obama administration's failure to more quickly acknowledge that intelligence suggested very early on that it was a planned terrorist attack, rather than spontaneous violence erupting out of protests over an anti-Muslim film.
House and Senate Republicans as well as GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney have criticized Obama and administration officials over the response to the attack and whether officials failed to provide enough security at the consulate.
As the events were unfolding, the Pentagon began to move special operations forces from Europe to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily. U.S. aircraft routinely fly in and out of Sigonella, and there are also fighter jets based in Aviano, Italy. But while the U.S. military was at a heightened state of alert because of 9/11, there were no American forces poised and ready to move immediately into Benghazi when the attack began.
Also, the Pentagon would not send forces or aircraft into Libya - a sovereign country - without a request from the State Department and the knowledge or consent of the host nation.