WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is better prepared now for an attack in Africa than it was when a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, came under a deadly siege in 2012, a member of the House Benghazi committee said Tuesday.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., was at the U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, during a Nov. 20 attack on a luxury hotel in Mali that killed 20 people. U.S. military forces stationed in Mali helped secure the hotel and helped evacuate Americans and others. Westmoreland's visit to the command was part of a six-day trip to U.S. facilities in Germany and Italy on behalf of the panel investigating the Benghazi attacks.
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Westmoreland said he watched intently as U.S. officials responded to the Mali assaults.
"I learned ... that the military is much better prepared now than what they were in 2012 to go in and prepare a mission and possibly go in and rescue Americans," he said.
Westmoreland called that a positive development but said it also showed "deficiencies" in U.S. capabilities during the Benghazi attacks three years ago. A crisis response team created after the Benghazi attacks has a range of capabilities to respond to threats in a host of African countries, Westmoreland said.
Those capabilities far exceed what the U.S. was able to do when the diplomatic post in Benghazi and a nearby CIA facility came under assault hours apart on Sept. 11-12, 2012. Four Americans, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other officials have said they moved quickly to deploy commando teams from Spain and Central Europe during the chaotic assaults, but the first military unit didn't arrive until 15 hours after the first of two attacks.
"Time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response," Panetta told Congress in 2013 shortly before stepping down as Pentagon chief.
A report last year by the House Armed Services Committee said that U.S. Air Force F-16 fighters stationed at Aviano, Italy, at the time were configured for training flights. None was on combat alert.
Westmoreland said an intelligence official he talked to in Germany told him that U.S. officials "didn't have all the intelligence they needed in Libya at that time to have any warning of an attack."
The Africa Command now monitors social media in the region 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Westmoreland said. "I know we weren't doing that then," he said.
"North Africa in 2011 was a hot zone," Westmoreland said, "but there were so many hot zones over there. And (U.S. officials) were stretched as far as getting data and intelligence. Now they've closed some of those gaps."
Westmoreland was the only member of the Republican-led Benghazi committee to make the trip, which also included visits to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, the U.S. Embassy in Rome and the Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily.
Democrats skipped the trip and complained before he left that Westmoreland and other Republicans were embarking on "a lavish and expensive new congressional delegation to Italy and other European destinations."
The committee has already topped $5 million in taxpayer spending since its creation in May 2014 to investigate the attacks. Democrats have criticized the investigation, arguing that it is meant to undermine Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. Clinton was secretary of state at the time of the attacks.
The panel's chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., did not make the trip, but Westmoreland said Gowdy "trusts me to go." Westmoreland serves on the House intelligence panel and chairs a subcommittee on the National Security Agency and cybersecurity.
"I don't think it was necessary for everybody to go. I just think it was necessary for somebody to go and actually see with our eyes all this stuff" at the Africa Command and other sites, Westmoreland said.
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