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News Wrap: Leon Panetta Testifies on U.S. Military’s Response to Benghazi Attack

February 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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HARI SREENIVASAN: For the first time, Pentagon leaders said today they had supported arming the rebels in Syria. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs, said they made that recommendation to President Obama. Panetta told a Senate hearing that, in the end, the president decided against sending in arms. Instead, the U.S. has provided only humanitarian aid to the rebels.

Secretary Panetta also defended the military’s response to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The assault killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Panetta testified there had been no specific warning of an imminent attack, so U.S. forces were too far away to respond.

DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA, United States: The United States military, as I have said, is not and frankly shouldn’t be a 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world. The U.S. military has neither the resources nor the responsibility to have a firehouse next to every U.S. facility in the world.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona argued the military could have deployed in time if it had heeded warnings coming from the consulate and Ambassador Stevens.

A 21-year-old Bangladeshi man pleaded guilty today to plotting to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. Quazi Nafis was arrested in October after an FBI sting operation. Prosecutors said he drove a van to the door of the bank and tried to set off what he thought was a bomb. In fact, the van was carrying dummy explosives supplied by an FBI agent. Nafis faces 30 years in federal prison.

In Tunisia, new protests broke out in the capital, demanding the end of the government. It was the second day of unrest sparked by the killing of a leading opposition figure.

We have a report narrated by Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: In Tunis today, crowds converged on the Interior Ministry on the same spot where the so-called Arab spring began two years ago.

“The people want the downfall of the regime,” the chant once again. But, this time, the tear gas came from police loyal not to a dictator, but to Tunisia’s democratically elected government, one which now stands accused of complicity in political assassination. The victim was Chokri Belaid, shot outside his home yesterday by a gunman on a motorbike.

Belaid had appeared on television the night before he died. The secular politician told his interviewer that Tunisia’s governing Islamist party harbored religious factions which incited violence. His killing prompted the biggest explosion of anger since the revolution itself, groups claiming that revolution had been stolen by Islamists who would stop at nothing to eliminate their enemies.

Last night, the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, told Tunisians he would replace his Cabinet with a political technocrat. But, today, Jebali’s Islamist party, known as Ennahda, said it hadn’t been consulted and its ministers were not going anywhere.

Chokri Belaid’s family and friends gathered at his coffin and said his requests for state protection had been ignored and that Islamists in Ennahda not only tolerated radicals, but secretly supported them.

It’s possible that Salafist extremists acted alone. This Tunisian cleric was recorded threatening Belaid. “Come here and see what the people will do to you,” he says here.

Whatever the truth, Belaid’s death is resonating across the Arab world, where new freedoms pose new dangers, political Islam out of the shadows, but triggering unrest.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tunisia’s main labor union called today for a general strike on Friday. Belaid’s funeral is also set for Friday, raising fears of confrontations across the North African nation.

At least 53 people were killed in Zambia today when a bus smashed into a tractor-trailer and a car. Video from the scene showed rescuers combing through tangled wreckage. Hours after the crash, they were still searching for victims. The African nation’s information minister said, in addition to the dead, more than 20 people were hurt.

The extent of government corruption in Afghanistan improved slightly last year, but the cost went up anyway. A United Nations survey found — out today found that 50 percent of Afghans reported paying a bribe in 2012, down 9 percent from 2009. But the total of the bribes hit $3.9 billion dollars. That’s up 40 percent. President Hamid Karzai has vowed to clean up corruption within his government.

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez denied today that he improperly intervened in a medical billing dispute to help his leading political donor. The New Jersey Democrat acknowledged contacting Medicare officials to ask about billing practices. At the time, the program was embroiled in a dispute with Dr. Salomon Melgen, an ophthalmologist in Florida. Melgen has contended he never tried to defraud Medicare. The FBI searched his offices last week.

Wall Street was back on the losing side today, as its up and down week continued. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 42 points to close at 13,944. The Nasdaq fell three points to close at 3,165.

Those are some of the day’s major stories — now back to Ray.