Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta used a hearing on the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack on Benghazi to plead with Congress for a budget agreement that would prevent sequestration cuts to the Department of Defense.

During his testimony before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on Thursday, Panetta said his greatest concern as defense secretary is the fiscal uncertainty hanging over Washington.

“I cannot imagine that people would stand by and deliberately hurt this country, in terms of our national defense, by letting this happen,” he said.

Ultimately, sequestration cuts would erode the military’s capabilities and threaten its world standing, Panetta asserted.

“Instead of being a first-rate power in the world, we would become a second-rate power,” he said. “That would be the result of sequestration.”

The mandatory spending cuts would force the Defense Department to take more than $46 billion out of its budget, Panetta said, posing a serious national security threat.

“This budget uncertainty could prompt the most significant readiness crisis in more than a decade,” he said.

Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., called Panetta’s plea a “clarion call.”

“There is near universal agreement on this panel about the devastating effects sequestration is likely to have,” he said.