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Presidential debate: Do new reports on Libya change the story?

Ahead of Monday's presidential debate on foreign policy, a new narrative is emerging about why the White House waited so long to describe the Sept. 11 attack in Libya as a terrorist attack.

By Staff writer / October 22, 2012

A worker vacuums as the set for Monday's presidential debate is prepared, Oct. 21, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will hold their final debate on foreign policy.

Eric Gay/AP

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Why did it take the Obama administration so long to describe the Sept. 11 attack that killed ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans as the work of organized Islamist insurgents?

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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That’s a central question bearing on whether President Obama is weak in foreign policy, as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney charges. A clear picture of the behind-the-scenes action here may not emerge until histories are written years hence. But new reports on the eve of the third and final presidential debate suggest that at least some of the cause of the delay stemmed from the nature of intelligence community reports to the president on the tragedy.

Here’s what we know at the moment: On Sept. 16, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on five TV talk shows and generally ascribed the attack to the ad hoc action of mobs infuriated by a crude anti-Islamic video made in the US. She said evidence gathered to that point indicated no premeditation on the part of attackers, but she did add that “extremists” might have escalated the violence once it began.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Rice took this line because that’s what the CIA was saying at the time. For more than a week, the daily briefing prepared for the president by the intelligence community held that the assault grew out of a spontaneous demonstration, write Journal reporters Adam Enous and Siobhan Gorham.

“The CIA was consistent from Sept. 13 to Sept. 21 that the attack evolved from a protest,” they write.

CIA analysts began to doubt this conclusion as more evidence about the confusing situation worked its way up through the intelligence chain. Lower level intelligence officials suspected the assertion about protests was outdated even as Rice was making the rounds of her Sunday talk show appearances, according to a story by reporter Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.

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