But their surprise remarks underscored sharp divisions within the Obama administration over its policy toward Syria, where an estimated 60,000 people have died since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began about two years ago. The statements also marked a rare instance in which the Pentagon’s leaders publicly voiced disagreement with the White House.
At the tail end of a line of questioning about Benghazi, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Panetta and Dempsey whether they had supported a plan “that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria.” The plan, he said, was floated in the summer by then-CIA Director David H. Petraeus and endorsed by another heavyweight in the administration at the time, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“We do,” Panetta replied.
“You did support that?” McCain asked again.
“We did,” added Dempsey, who was sitting next to Panetta. Neither elaborated on their positions.
McCain appeared taken aback by the answers. A few hours later, he issued a statement saying he was “very pleased” to learn of the Pentagon’s stance but criticized President Obama for blocking arms shipments to Syrian rebels.
“What this means is that the president overruled the senior leaders of his own national security team,” said McCain, who has long advocated for U.S. intervention in Syria.
The White House declined to comment on the rift. At the State Department, where Secretary of State John F. Kerry has been in the job for only a week, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also declined to “talk about internal policy deliberations of the government.”
A U.S. defense official, however, confirmed that Panetta and Dempsey “supported looking into the idea last year” of directly arming Syrian rebels. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the two Pentagon leaders “understand the difficulties” of supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition and currently back Obama’s policy of giving nonlethal aid.
Later in Thursday’s hearing, in response to a follow-up question, Panetta and Dempsey confirmed that they had supported the CIA proposal in the summer to arm Syrian rebels. But Panetta added, “Obviously, there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president’s decision to make it nonlethal. And I supported his decision in the end.”
Concerns about extremists
Obama has consistently opposed arming the Syrian resistance, saying that U.S. involvement could backfire.
He and other administration officials have said that they are particularly concerned by the emergence of rebel groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, which see the conflict with Assad as a holy war and are filling their ranks with foreign fighters.