Damage inside the burnt consulate building in
Damage inside the burnt consulate building inAFP/FIle

U.S. military leaders ruled out sending in forces during the attack on an American consulate in Libya last month because of a lack of reliable intelligence, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday, according to AFP.

Although forces were on alert and ready to launch an operation if needed, the U.S. military commander for Africa, General Carter Ham, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and Panetta all decided against any intervention as they had no clear picture of events unfolding in Benghazi, he said.

"There's a basic principle here, and 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 was quoted by AFP as having told a news conference.

"And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who's ...in that area, General Ham, General Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation," added Panetta.

He acknowledged that some were second-guessing how the administration had responded but added, "This happened within a few hours and it was really over before, you know, we had the opportunity to really know what was happening."

The attack on September 11 by dozens of heavily-armed terrorists kept security guards at bay for hours and left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

The incident has become the subject of bitter dispute in the U.S. presidential campaign, with Republican hopeful Mitt Romney and lawmakers in Congress accusing the White House of botching the response to the assault and trying to play down the role of Islamist extremists.

Panetta noted that the Pentagon sent platoons of Marines to Tripoli and to Yemen to bolster security at U.S. missions after the attack, and deployed naval ships off the coast of Libya.

Dempsey told the same press conference that reviews by the Pentagon and State Department would examine how the assault was handled but he said the military had responded promptly.

"I can tell you sitting here today that I feel confident that our forces were alert and responsive to what was a very fluid situation," Dempsey said.

Former CIA commander Gary Berntsen said this week that an American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was hovering over the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, on September 11 during the attack.

He charged, however, that the military backup that should have been racing to the scene, launched in response by those monitoring the Predator drone and other reconnaissance aircraft, moved too slowly and came too late.

U.S. officials said on Monday that the attack in Benghazi targeted more than just the consulate, but also a covert CIA installation.

The now-abandoned American consulate in Benghazi was set a little more than a mile away from the CIA base, the officials said. Up to this point, that separate base was described by administration officials only as a "safe house" or "annex" to the nearby consulate. In reality, CIA agents and other intelligence officials were operating out of Benghazi conducting delicate missions.

State Department officials testified at a hearing last week that requests for additional security in Benghazi were turned down by their superiors.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the blame for the fiasco over the Benghazi attack last week.

"I take responsibility," she said, adding, "I'm in charge of the State Department -- 60,000 plus people all over the world, 275 posts.”

Earlier this week, Clinton downplayed the suggestion that emails implicating an Al Qaeda-linked group in the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi were proof of terrorist involvement. She said that claims of responsibility on Facebook and Twitter were not "evidence."