Gates Suggests Americans Have a ‘Cartoonish Impression’ of U.S. Military Might

By Susan Jones | May 13, 2013 | 10:55 AM EDT

Defense Secretary Robert Gates pauses during a news conference at the Pentagon, Sept. 23, 2010. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

( - Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says if he'd been defense secretary during the attacks in Benghazi, he wouldn’t have sent" a single aircraft" to Libya, either, given all the “surface-to-air missiles that have disappeared from Gadhafi’s arsenals.”

Nor would he have sent in U.S. Special Forces, without “planning and preparation.”

Gates told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Americans have “sort of a cartoonish impression of  military capabilities and military forces.”

"I listened to the testimony of both (Defense) Secretary (Leon) Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. (Martin) Dempsey, and frankly, had I been in the job at the time, I think my decisions would have been just as theirs were,” Gates told Bob Schieffer  in an interview taped earlier and played during Sunday’s show.

"We don't have a ready force on stand-by in the Middle East, despite all the turmoil that's going on, with planes on strip-alert, troops ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. And so getting somebody there in a timely way would have been very difficult, if not impossible,” Gates said.

“Frankly, I have heard, ‘Why didn't you just fly a fighter jet over and try to scare them with the noise or something.’ Well, given the number of surface-to-air missiles that have disappeared from Gadhafi’s arsenals, I would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft, over Benghazi under those circumstances.

"And with respect to sending in Special Forces, or a small group of people to try to provide help -- based on everything I've read, people really didn't know what was going on in Benghazi contemporaneously. And to send some small number of Special Forces or other troops in without knowing what the environment is, without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence in terms of what is actually going on, on the ground, I think would have been very dangerous and, personally, I would not have approved that because we just don’t -- it’s sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces.

"The one thing that our forces are noted for is planning and preparation before we send people in harm’s way, and there just wasn’t time to do that."

Gates added that things always look easier "in retrospect."

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, Defense Secretary Panetta said “there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”

Panetta said the U.S. military “is not and should not be a global 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world.”

Panetta testified that armed aircraft -- UAVs, AC-130 gunships, or fixed-wing fighters with the necessary support capabilities -- were not in the vicinity of Libya – “and because of the distance, would have taken at least 9 to 12 hours if not more to deploy. This was, pure and simple, a problem of distance and time,” he concluded.

Dempsey, who appeared before the panel with Panetta, said that 9/11, the day of the attacks, "we were postured to respond to a wide array of general threats around the globe."

"Our military was appropriately responsive," Dempsey said, pointing to the diversion of an unarmed drone to Benghazi "within minutes." The surveillance drone arrived an hour later, he said.

Dempsey credited AFRICOM Gen. Carter Ham's "sound judgment," which "proved critical as we analyzed the complex, rapidly evolving situation and our range of response options."

“If we’d had been able to get there with anything, we’d have gone in there,” Dempsey told the panel.

Last week, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee he understands that Gen. Ham was in Washington the night of the terror attack in Benghazi.

Greg Hicks, a State Department whistleblower, testified that a second special operations team was in Tripoli, ready to fly to Benghazi to help Americans get out of there, but the team “was not  authorized to travel,” so they had to stay in Tripoli.

“They were furious,” Hicks said about the “stand down” order.

Hicks said he believes the stand-down order came from either AFRICOM or the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  But that information has not yet emerged publicly.