Panetta: Hillary Clinton ‘Understood the Importance of Intelligence Operations’

By Susan Jones | February 15, 2013 | 8:15 AM EST

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta honors former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Defense Department on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. (AP Photo)

( – Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta honored his "dear friend" Hillary Clinton Thursday, calling her "a strong and dedicated partner of the Department of Defense" and "one of the finest public servants of our time."

“In my past role as CIA director, she was someone who understood the importance of intelligence, understood the importance of intelligence operations, understood the importance of doing everything we could do to be able to go after those who attacked our country on 9/11,” Panetta said.

“As a senator, she saw the terror of that moment firsthand. And she never lost sight of the fact that we had to go after those who attacked us on 9/11 and use every capability we have. And she was always there supporting our missions and supporting our operations, and I appreciate that support, particularly during the bin Laden operation.”

In Thursday’s ceremony at the Pentagon, where Clinton received Defense Department’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award, Panetta did not mention the terror attacks in Benghazi, which rank as one of the Obama administration's notable intelligence failures.

However, he did mention that he and Hillary have taken part in tough policy discussions "involving Afghanistan and Syria and terrorist attacks."

He also mentioned how closely the two have worked together:

“During the time that we worked together as secretaries, Hillary and I did all we could to sustain the tightest possible bonds between ourselves and our departments. Together, we have dealt with some very tough issues. We've dealt with a lot of the threats that confront this country across the world.”

But despite their close working relationship, Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 7 that he never talked to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, when terrorists attacked U.S. government personnel at two U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

Two of Clinton's State Department employees -- Ambassador Chris Stevens and Information Management Officer Sean Smith -- were killed in the attacks that Panetta and Clinton never spoke about that day. Two former Navy SEALs who worked for the CIA, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, also were killed.

An Accountability Review Board set up by Clinton blamed "Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department" for "inadequate" security at the State Department's special mission  in Benghazi. It said the "security posture was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."

The ARB also said  “there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity.”

Republicans have faulted Clinton's "failure of leadership" before and after the Benghazi attacks.

Clinton, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 23, said she did not see the cables Ambassador Stevens sent the State Department requesting beefed-up security in Libya: "I did not see these requests. They did not come to me. I did not approve them. I did not deny them."

Sen. Rand Paul called her failure to protect Americans in Benghazi “inexcusable.”

“Not to know of the request for security -- really, I think cost these people their lives. Their lives could have been saved had someone been more available, had someone been aware of these things -- more on top of the job," Paul said.

At the same hearing, Clinton was criticized for perpetrating the administration’s line that the Benghazi attacks sprang from a protest over an obscure video.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked her why the Obama administration had “misled” the nation.

"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans," Clinton responded."Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided they would go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”